From the top of the mountain – literally – to struggling with addiction, domestic violence and crime, Raymond Gregson has been through a lot on his way to becoming the first person to graduate from Grays Harbor Community Court.
Now, he’s taking classes at Grays Harbor College, has reconnected in a real way with his 9-year old daughter and, for the first time in many years, has real hope for the future.
“I can’t say enough good about the program,” he said. “The self-confidence, the help, the reassurance it’s provided has been unmeasurable.”
Community court is a program through Aberdeen Municipal Court, which handles misdemeanor offenses. The idea is to help people who are facing relatively minor problems, but who could easily become mired in a revolving door scenario of being in and out of court if they don’t get guidance.
Gregson, 51, grew up on the Quinault Indian Reservation but moved to Oregon where he graduated from high school. After a stint in the Army, he and his wife ended up in Olympia. After the death of his wife, Gregson found steady and profitable employment remodeling casinos, a job he did steadily for 15 years. He says he’s been on disability for 11 years.
Then, a medical diagnosis of a hereditary disease that debilitated him to the extent he could no longer perform the physical labor needed to do the job that had afforded him not just a steady paycheck but a reasonably comfortable life for him and his children.
Gregson moved back to Grays Harbor because he remembered it as a place that was great for raising kids.
Long story short, financial and personal issues started to build in Gregson’s life. He had become addicted to drugs. A relationship resulted in domestic violence legal issues. A theft charge followed soon thereafter, landing him a date in court facing a third degree theft charge. It was there that he was introduced to the new Grays Harbor Community Court.
“They brought this community court up to me and I was intrigued. I had no idea how life changing it would be,” said Gregson. “The people there are amazing. Judge (Susan) Solan is an excellent judge, with her personality and compassion for people in her court.”
The option to participate in community court is strictly voluntary, said community court judicial coordinator Cinnamon Falley. The prosecuting attorney looks through the case files and finds candidates that would qualify for the court. Falley meets with those candidates, explains community court and, if a defendant so chooses, takes them through the steps it takes to graduate the program.
“Cinnamon … I can’t say enough about her,” said Gregson. “They definitely have the right person in place for that job.”
Gregson, like anyone else who agrees to community court, attended a service entry event at the Coastal Community Action Program building on 3rd Street the Thursday after his first court appearance. There, Falley interviews each candidate and together they form an action plan to get them through the program. Representatives from more than a dozen social service and other programs are on hand to talk to the candidates right then and there.
“All the resources so readily available, so easily accessed, you could be a person who is not outgoing or anything and still find the means to get you what you need,” said Gregson. “It changed my life, to tell the truth, and gave me a positive outlook.”
So impressed with the availability of resources all at once was Gregson that he continues to attend the Thursday afternoon sessions to introduce other people to the program and see what’s new. There are new resources being added as the court continues to grow.
“If somebody is intimidated by the system or feels they’ve been messed up by it, they can go there and talk to any resource they need and not feel threatened,” he said. “There are no tables, no desks, no making an appointment. For three hours you can wander in and talk to whoever you need to. I go in almost every week just to say hi and see if there’s something else there. I’ve brought others, including my mother in law. It’s a great opportunity and it’s open to everybody. You don’t have to have a criminal record.”
Gregson has decided to take his life experience and combine it with a college education to go into human services to provide the kind of assistance he has received from community court.
“There are no programs in most areas for a man and a child who are victims of domestic violence,” he said. “So I’m looking into being a domestic violence counselor for men and being an advocate for male victims. Right now, there is no place for a man to take his daughter if he’s the victim. I’ve been a victim and have hit brick wall after brick wall.”
He says everyone involved with him since his introduction to community court, and even before, has been very supporting and encouraging.
“I’ve got my daughter with me on temporary custody,” he said. “Cinnamon is helping me with the right steps to take, the prosecuting attorney has been helpful, my defense attorney has been giving me advice. Everyone in the program has gone over and above what they say they will do on paper that they should do. They are genuinely involved in bettering you.”
Gregson says agreeing to the community court program has given him hope for the future and has proven to be a springboard for kickstarting a new career and outlook on life.
“I’ve been at both ends of the world, from making $80,000 a year and living on Mt. Hood to being a drug addict,” he said. “The program they have started here changes people, changes attitudes and has turned my life around.”
Cinnamon Falley has been Grays Harbor Community Court Judicial Coordinator since the court started in February. In just a few months’ time the court has reached out to dozens of offenders, offering them easy access to programs and services that can get them out of the cycle of criminal activity. All this is done in the Coastal Community Action Program building in Aberdeen every Thursday afternoon.
“We have had some just amazing things happen in that little room,” she said.
The graduation of Raymond Gregson May 1 was the program’s first, but many more are currently enrolled and working their way through the program.
“Currently I have 26 people who are actively working on their action plans,” said Falley. “I have 14 who have opted in but we haven’t got to the point where we actually enter the action plan.”
Not everyone who qualifies for the program will make it through, for a variety of reasons.
“I have one that was revoked due to noncompliance, and four others who just declined the program and decided to go the other route,” said Falley. “Five other potential candidates were identified but before they could file their action plans they had new charges filed against them that led the prosecutor to withdraw their invitations. There’s another 25 that have been identified but haven’t been able to get into the program just yet.”
Currently there are 26 people actively working on their action programs, out of 51 total people Falley has talked to about the program. She accompanies the people who opt into the program every step of the way.
“I’m in court every Monday all day, and Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings, and the service entry event Thursday afternoon,” she said. “The rest of my time is working with the clients themselves, helping them overcome whatever obstacles they may have.”
When a person completes their action plan and graduates the program, the charges against them are usually dropped.
“When they come out their charge is dismissed, so there is no arrest on their record,” said Falley. “Otherwise they would have an arrest on their record, which makes it harder for them to get housing or a job and puts them in the cycle of crime again.”