Editor’s note: The following is a continuing series of excerpts from “Come to the Edge: Arrival and Survival in Del Norte County” by College of the Redwoods English Professor Ruth Rhodes.
William Follett has lived in Del Norte County for most of his professional life. Here he tells the story of how he and his wife came to live in Crescent City. He also provides a candid look at the drug culture in our community and discusses ways the judicial system—a system he knows well as a Superior Court judge— has changed in response to shifting values about drug addiction.
I wasn’t born here. I grew up in Lemoore, California in the San Joaquin Valley. My family had been in Lemoore since shortly after the Civil War. I moved to Fresno for college where I got a degree in journalism, and then worked in the Virgin Islands for nearly four years, first as a VISTA Volunteer. I helped set up high school newspapers on the islands. It’s also where I met my wife,
Maureen, who was a teacher in VISTA. When we got out of VISTA, we stayed for a while. I worked as the public information officer for the island school system and then as the editor for a daily newspaper.
I went to law school in Sacramento. At first, I wanted a law degree. I intended to write about legal and governmental affairs for a major paper. In the Virgin Islands, when I had covered the courts for the paper, I’d watch lawyers and think, “I can do better than these guys.” By the time I got through law school, I decided since I’d worked this hard, I was going to practice as a lawyer.
I came to Del Norte right out of law school and worked for Shafer and Cochran. With three attorneys, we had the largest law firm in the county. But it almost didn’t happen. My wife was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and she wanted to move back east after law school. I really didn’t want to do that, so we made a deal. We would stay on the west coast if we found a place on the ocean.
In law school, I had a friend who always talked about how great it was on the north coast. I’d never been up here, so during Easter break of my second year of law school, Maureen and I drove up to see Eureka. The whole time we were there, we noticed an unpleasant smell in the air coming from the mills. I heard later that locals referred to it as “the smell of money.” After a couple nights, we hated that smell so much, we decided to drive north to Crescent City.
When we first got to town, I had a lot of work to do and holed up in the motel room while Maureen went out exploring. When she came back, she said, “You’ve got to see this place!”
She’d found this road—Pebble Beach Drive—and the view was just stunning. Most of the homes there were modest, one-story houses. We thought we might just be able to afford to live on the ocean here. Plus, I wouldn’t have to go east to Pennsylvania.
About a year and a half later, when I finished law school, I got an interview in Crescent City. It’s kind of a funny story. Another friend of mine was offered the job before I had heard about it. He accepted, and he and his wife drove up here the weekend before he was to start work. They arrived during a huge storm, with the rain blowing sideways. His wife refused to live here. He called up Monday morning and said, “I won’t be taking the job after all.”
So the position opened up again, and I ended up getting it. What sealed the deal was that Maureen was offered a special education job with the school district at the same time. There were only two severely handicapped teaching positions in the entire county and one of them happened to open up in the middle of the school year because the teacher who had been doing it was pregnant. So when we were both offered jobs at the same time, it seemed like fate.
We absolutely loved the place. Still do. The beauty blows me away. Living on Pebble Beach Drive lets us enjoy the ocean in all its different moods. I like to ride my bicycle along the ocean, and my wife was down on the beach just last night celebrating a friend’s birthday with a bonfire. The remoteness is challenging, and it’s hard to maintain family connections and old friendships because it takes so much effort to visit, but the friends we’ve made over the years are like family. For me, the natural beauty and the people are what make it worthwhile.
I’m on the board of the Wild Rivers Community Foundation, and I hear people from other communities, like Curry County, say how impressed they are with how involved in the community people are in Del Norte.
There’s a generally collegial legal community here. It’s smaller. That’s part of it. I’ve seen how cutthroat law is often practiced in LA. Every time you got into some kind of minor dispute, someone would threaten “sanctions,” which are civil fines a judge can impose on an attorney for various rules transgressions. As a judge here, I can think of very few times when I’ve had to issue sanctions.
Attorneys have to deal with each other tomorrow—next week— next month. You may need an accommodation or a continuance the next time you work with that attorney, so you can’t afford to make enemies over little things.
Moving to a small town, I knew I would be in general practice. I used to joke that I “specialized” in anything that walked through the door. I intentionally did very little family law—I only did five divorce cases my whole career, and two of them were for a family member. My partners in the practice handled the family law cases.
Over my twenty year career I did a lot of real estate and criminal law, and by the end of my practice, my concentration was representing local government agencies such as the harbor district, solid waste authority, and several community services districts.
As an attorney, I always thought I’d like to be a judge. But openings for judgeships don’t come along very often. When an opening did occur, I put my foot forward. I was elected in March 2000, but my term wouldn’t begin until the following January. After the election, Judge Shafer retired early, and the Governor appointed me to fill the position until my full term began.
You asked about ways I identify with or share values with different cultural groups here. I didn’t join the local Rotary Club right away. Rotary International had been accused of being discriminatory, but when it changed its policy to allow women in, I joined. It’s been great for me. I’ve made so many friends and professional connections. It’s really enriched my life.
My wife was a teacher, so I’ve spent a lot of time with educators, too. I feel a real connection with the education community. I served on the school board for a short term as well. Both of our daughters received good educations in the public schools here and both went on to become teachers.
I believe the Native American culture deeply enriches our community. I can’t claim to have a deep understanding about it, but I’ve made some connections over the years. I got to know a lot of people and learn quite a bit when I was on the first Gaming Commission for the Elk Valley Rancheria. I’ve had the great pleasure of working with Judge Abby Abinatti who is the Chief Judge for the Yurok Tribal Court. It has been enlightening to see how a legal system with so many differences from the one I’m familiar with can work effectively.
Another culture I’ve learned a lot about from the outside is the local drug culture. Substance abuse and drug addiction are certainly challenges for people in our community. I run a drug court, and it’s been truly rewarding to work with people trying to escape their addictions. It’s difficult for people in that culture to break out.
I’ve seen a lot of tears, but a lot of cheers, too. If you’re in the drug culture, your addiction has probably changed the way you behave. You’ve lied to your friends, you’ve lied to your family, and you’ve lied to your employer. If you’re really into it, you’ve probably lost your job if you ever had one. You make excuses for everything. It is a really, really tough place to be.
Some people assume that those abusing drugs are just lawless and out to party. Many don’t realize that addicts often get into drugs because of some kind of mental illness or trauma. Researchers have identified four traits that put people at risk for addiction.
One is impulsiveness. Someone offers you a drug at a party, and you’re more likely to try it. You may not even think about it. Another trait is anxiety. People with anxiety often have a tendency to take drugs to self-medicate. Someone offers them an opioid, and it makes them feel better at first, it helps the anxiety. Another trait is hopelessness. People get terribly depressed. Methamphetamine can make them feel good temporarily. The fourth trait is sensationseeking. This may include the partier-type person. Most of the people I see are people who are depressed and are self-medicating.
By the time I see them, they may have lost their kids or the kids resent or don’t respect them because of what they’ve done. You get a mother who’s trying to get her life together, and she has to cope with her thirteen-year-old kid who says, “Who are you to tell me what to do?” That kid’s been with grandma or in foster care, and the relationship with the parent is seriously damaged.
The drug culture is all over the United States, but what makes matters worse in Del Norte is that we have fewer programs and services here. We don’t have residential rehabilitation, needle exchanges, or a detox center. A lot of our “detox” consists of putting people in jail for a while. When we send someone to rehab, we have to send them to a different community. You temporarily separate them from their real life problems like their dysfunctional family, lack of housing and transportation, and drug-culture friends. They might do great in rehab. They get clean, but as soon as they come home, they run into their old buddies and the problems that they had before. And they start using again. Treating people with drug addiction in the community where they live is a better solution. They can get help with the specific triggers that fuel their addiction.
The drug court program holds people accountable. Participants must work recovery every day, going to classes and 12-step meetings, providing drug tests, meeting with their probation officer, and coming to court. Recently, we’ve put more emphasis on aftercare to help graduates continue with a lifetime commitment to sobriety.
I think what the community is now doing is better than what we used to do. We have three Oxford Houses—residential clean and sober houses organized by the recovering addicts themselves. Oxford came here in the last few years, and they’ve provided supportive living environments for people to get fresh starts. Humboldt Addiction Services Programs (HASP) has been successful, too. We also have more mental health services available. We have Jack Breazeal who oversees treatment for people who weren’t treated before.
We have also started the Integrated Treatment Court (ITC) for people suffering mental illness. A typical participant might have started a small fire, forcefully resisted arrest, or led officers in a high speed chase. In each case their crimes are related to their mental illness. ITC is an attempt to treat the mentally ill in a more humane way and also to save taxpayers money. It’s incredibly expensive to lock people up, and putting mentally ill people in jail doesn’t help them get better or serve society in the long run. ITC won’t cure people of mental illness, but we aim for harm reduction by providing services to manage their illness by ensuring, for instance, that they keep their doctor appointments and take their meds.
The impetus for ITC came one day in the courtroom when I sentenced a man to prison. His mother was there, crying and insisting that what he really needed was mental health treatment. I don’t know if that was really the whole story for this young man, but I vowed to work on the problem of lack of coordinated mental health care for people in the court system. I was amazed when I started talking with the local officials how enthusiastic they were. They recognized the problem and said, “Yeah, let’s do this!”
A bunch of us, the heads of the county Mental Health and Health and Human Services, the DA, Sheriff, Chief Probation Officer, a public defender, started meeting and then visited other counties that had working programs. We observed the courts, talked with judges and team members, got lots of good ideas, and then wrote our own protocols.
Because it’s so resource-intensive, we’ve had to limit the number of people in ITC. There is probably a need to serve five times the number of people we do now, but we’d need more resources such as additional case managers. We’ve made the decision to start mall and not apply for grants yet. We’ll make do with the resources we have now, make our mistakes, better identify what works and what doesn’t, what we need and what we don’t need, and then seek grants to expand the program when we’re ready.
Another thing we really haven’t talked about is the economic disparity here. I struggle sometimes with how to deal with a teenager who violates his probation by not going to school, but he’s living in a car and coping with the myriad of issues that come with homelessness. Our economy makes it hard to be fair, because people don’t start out with an equal share. I don’t recall there being a visible homeless problem in Del Norte thirty years ago, but now it’s visible and widespread, and it creates all kinds of challenges.
We try hard to treat people fairly here in the court system. Everyone gets an attorney if they’re facing even the possibility of jail time. Right now we don’t have overzealous prosecutors, but we have in the past. We went through periods of time where prosecutors were trying to send people to prison for even a small amount of drugs. Some of the changes to the way we prosecute drug crimes has come with the changes in the law and with the recognition that sending people to prison for drug use didn’t really work. That’s been positive.
This is a law and order community like most rural areas. It’s a red community in a blue state. It’s more conservative than most of California. Here, our attitude has often been that if you commit a crime, you ought to be punished for it and put away. People running for office have often felt they needed to be tough on crime. But with mandated reduction in California prison population, we’ve been forced to rethink how we deal with some societal problems previously dealt with—not always effectively—with criminal laws.
There’s probably a larger percentage of people here who are rugged individualists than in urban areas. Also, I know I’m generalizing, but having Pelican Bay State Prison here has probably entrenched our community’s values about law and order. But overall,
I think having built the prison has been more positive than negative for the community. Back in the 1980s, we had unemployment in the mid-20% range. Property values were so low people were having a hard time selling their houses. Young people who had grown up here had to leave because there were few jobs. The tax base was down. I think building the prison really did help bring back middle class salaries that were lost when the mills shut down, and it brought in people making good wages. It has been a tremendous change, and overall, I think it’s been good for our community, but it did influence community values.
I’ve been working for the legal system for almost forty years, and I see that how the law deals with crime over the years is cyclical. A shift is happening now. People are once again seeing that there’s a benefit to rehabilitation and treatment. For much of my career, the emphasis has been on punishment and getting the bad guys off the streets. Changes in the law mean now we can’t send people to prison for simply using meth. It forces us to do things more effectively—and save money. It costs a lot to send an addict to prison. That can be a terrible waste of resources if it doesn’t help them recover from addiction, and they just keep coming back to the community and continue using.
With Prop 47, crimes that used to be felonies aren’t felonies anymore. And there has been a sea change in marijuana laws. The first time I had to order the sheriff to return someone’s seized marijuana— well, I’ll never forget how strange that felt.
Early in my career on the bench, I spent an awful lot of time with Pelican Bay cases. I would get dozens and dozens of petitions for writ of habeas corpus from Security Housing Unit (SHU) inmates complaining about conditions. Conditions were very harsh in the SHU. Inmates were locked down nearly twenty-three hours a day supposedly until they paroled, debriefed, or died. That was how the state planned to break the dangerous hold that gangs had on state prison yards. The gangs were even running organized crime outside the prisons. Many of the inmates in SHU were extremely violent and dangerous. The Legislature and prison officials had to make difficult decisions about how to manage the problem, and they came up with the solution of building the Pelican Bay SHU in our county.
So much of that harsh treatment is going away now. It is part of this cycle I referred to earlier. I often wonder how history is going to judge how we performed during this law-and-order phase, with the three-strikes law locking people up for life, putting people in prison for drug use, and keeping others in SHU indefinitely. I’m not sure history’s judgment will be kind.
Drug abuse is horrible for society, there’s no doubt about that. To combat it we enacted laws to send offenders to prison. We
thought that would scare people into not using. Experience has
shown us that has not been very effective. When our country was
founded we didn’t have heroin or methamphetamine problems.
We had alcoholics, but we didn’t lock them up for any length of
time. As the drug problems grew worse, society decided we would
treat drug offenders as felons, lock them up, and take away their
voting rights. We’ve created a long list of crimes classified as felonies
and disenfranchised huge numbers of people. We’re getting
away from that now, and people in the future will probably look
back and conclude we were too harsh. Drug abuse is an intractable problem, and to deal with it effectively we need a more nuanced approach than simply locking people up.
You’ve said that you had a few interviews where people have been critical of law enforcement. I’ve seen some bad cops in my time here. There’s no question about it. There was a highway patrolman some time back who frequently physically abused people. My clients would tell me about it, and while I was skeptical at first, after I heard the same story over and over from different clients about the same officer, I began to believe it. We had a guy on the city police force decades ago who burglarized stores on his night beat. It’s shameful and very unfortunate when something like that happens because these people make everyone else look bad, including the officer who is doing an impeccable job. I don’t see the problem here as any worse than elsewhere. For every bad apple, there are probably fifty or a hundred honest cops doing a good, professional job under difficult and often dangerous conditions.
It’s very easy to accuse people who are in public service even if they are doing a good job. It’s particularly easy to say horrible things and damage reputations now on the Internet. But that’s a price we pay for free speech. As I said before, I think most people in public service are acting honorably and trying to do a good job.
We can legitimately disagree but too often in the Internet age, our public discourse turns into scurrilous attacks on public servants.*
One of the things I love about the American courtroom is that attorneys can heatedly argue over significant ideas, issues and honestly held opposing views, but it is done transparently and usually without personal animus.
I plan to retire at the end of my term. Maureen and I will stay here in Del Norte. We do want to travel. We have one daughter in Spain and another who is planning to move to New York. One problem for older Del Norters is they sometimes have to leave the community to get specialized health care. That’s a reality of being in such a remote place. We’re a long ways from a big hospital.
My wife and I both have had cancer. We have lots of stairs in our house. As long as we stay healthy and can climb those stairs, we’ll probably stay here. Del Norte has been really good for me. It’s a beautiful place. I have friends who are Obama supporters, and I have friends who are Trump supporters, but I appreciate them all. Moving from here would mean leaving the friends we’ve made over decades.
Living here, I’ve been blessed.
—May 7, 2018
* William Follett, like many judges, was a target of a social media attack over his ruling in a prominent rape case in 2017.