In the early 1990s, when Paul Trachte was working as a public defender in Orange County, there were few alternatives to incarceration for his clients struggling with mental illness. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the movement to free psychiatric patients from involuntary confinement, which began in the 1960s, was sabotaged by the lack of subsequent support for community-based mental health care, contributing to the equal number of people in jails and prisons today as were in psychiatric hospitals in the ‘50s. The funneling of patients into prisons also made correctional facilities de facto mental health care providers (Cook County Jail in Chicago is thought to be the largest mental health care provider in the United States)—a role for which the prisons were not prepared. Yet even for judges sympathetic to defendants’ mental health needs, there were few options when Trachte was a public defender.
“Even if the judges were of the mind to try to give them the best break that they could—give them a chance to be on probation or something of that nature—without the resources to deal with the situation, the problems could never be addressed,” Trachte explains. “It would result in increasingly serious criminal behavior, until such time as the person ended up in prison and nobody made an effort to address the situation.”
In large part, it was Trachte’s experience working as a public defender that drove him to develop a mental health treatment court, which can divert defendants from corrections to care, after he was elected judge to Newburgh City Court in 2015. Now he hopes to bring such progressive ideas to Orange County Court in a campaign for judge against the latest in a long line of Republicans who have held the seat.
“If you help an individual, that’s one of the best feelings that you can get,” Trachte says.
Before arriving in New York State, Trachte graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with a degree in political science in 1985. Catalyzed by the movement against Apartheid in South Africa, as well as the failures of the War on Drugs in the United States, he decided to pursue a career as a lawyer, completing Albany Law School in 1988. For the next five years, Trachte worked as a public defender, first in New York City, then in Orange County. His performance won the notice of Larkin & Axelrod, a Newburgh-based firm, where he started in 1993 and became a partner in ‘97. He left in 2003 to open his own practice in Newburgh, joined by his nephew.
Throughout his career as a lawyer, Trachte practiced criminal defense, attracted by the desire to help his clients. Even his decision to enter private practice with Larkin & Axelrod was made with the stipulation that he be able to accept cases regardless of clients’ ability to pay. He still takes pride in the long-standing relationships he has developed and maintains with clients in Newburgh, where he has sometimes represented multiple generations of family members. Trachte describes himself as being so committed to criminal defense that it took significant developments in the judiciary to even interest him in becoming a judge.
“I realized there was a need in the judiciary to have progressive individuals involved as judges,” he explains.
The main advancement that caught Trachte’s attention was the development of “problem-solving courts,” which not only have the ability to divert defendants from incarceration, but also direct them to resources to address the underlying problems that brought them to court in the first place. The Human Trafficking Intervention Court in Queens, which opened in 2004, was one of the first such efforts in the United States. Still in operation, it provides diversion programs for women arrested for prostitution. With progressive-minded judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and third-party service providers, the court successfully keeps women out of jail, and their records clean, by instead offering them counseling services and prioritizing their transition out of prostitution via other employment and educational opportunities.
Hoping to bring this new model of justice to Orange County, Trachte ran for Newburgh City Court Judge in 2015 and won, allowing him to develop his own problem-solving court: the Wellness and Recovery Court. Established as a “hub court,” the Wellness and Recovery Court is able to accept cases from any municipality within Orange County in which the defendant is struggling with mental health issues, such as addiction. The Wellness and Recovery Court eschews the traditional relationship with the defendant in favor of a more informal process focused on support. The “participants,” as Trachte describes them, are provided with peer specialists, whom they meet with weekly to ensure access to health care, housing, and other resources.
“Just having the structure and the specialist and the relationship that develops and the assistance to get the resources that they need—you can literally see how it has changed their lives,” says Trachte of the court’s participants.
Five years into this successful experiment, Trachte now hopes to bring problem-solving courts to the next level. Orange County Court judges—the position for which Trachte is now running—hear criminal cases from throughout the county. While the Wellness and Recovery Court can accept cases from anywhere in Orange County, the most serious cases, such as felonies, are still heard in Orange County Court. With the mandatory retirement of one of the current judges, Robert Freehill, arriving at the end of this year, Trachte hopes to enter the county court and establish a higher-level mental health treatment court.
If his campaign for Orange County Court is won, Trachte will be breaking new ground both judicially and politically. According to Trachte, the seat has always been held by a Republican. Freehill, for example, is a Republican who has been in the position since 2007. Trachte’s challenger, Orange County Court attorney Hyun Chin Kim, has been endorsed by the local Republican, Conservative, and Independence parties, as well as county organizations for law enforcement. For his part, Trachte is supported by the Democratic Party, Working Families Party, and the Hudson-Catskill Central Labor Council. As he sees it, these distinctions are now more important than ever.
“We’re at a moment in history demonstrated by the rallies and the insistence on change,” he says, in reference to the ongoing Black Lives Matter Movement. “In order to keep confidence in our criminal justice system, we need to have a progressive approach that will be receptive to the need for change.”
Arvind Dilawar is an independent journalist. His articles, interviews, and essays on everything from the spacesuits of the future to love in the time of visas have appeared in Newsweek, The Guardian, Vice, and elsewhere.