Monday, December 22, 2014

Judge Seeks 'Active Retirement'

Associate District Judge Dennis Sprouse is not planning a quiet retirement. "I've applied for an active retirement," he said recently. Sprouse said his active-retirement plans include continuing his association with the Sequoyah County Drug Court program, which helps non-violent offenders become productive citizens, and he plans to continue teaching business law at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.

Sprouse, 62, will leave his place as Sequoyah County's associate district judge shortly after the new year, as newly-elected Kyle Waters takes over. Sprouse has been on the bench for 28 years. But he didn't start out to be a judge or even an attorney. He explained, "I didn't start out to be a judge. I wanted to be a Methodist minister." After graduating from high school in Coalgate and preparing for college, Sprouse ran into the LSAT, or Law School Admission Test, and tested high enough to get into law school. He chose that path, after graduating with a bachelor's degree from Oral Roberts University of Tulsa. He then obtained a law degree from the University of Tulsa in 1977. He set up shop as an attorney in Sallisaw in June 1978. Sprouse, who didn't plan on being a judge, said it may have been a signal when he was elected to Boys State in high school, and, at Boys State, was elected to the Boys State Supreme Court, no small achievement in itself, and somewhat of a surprise to the future judge. 

Sprouse was a practicing attorney in Sallisaw for eight years before the suggestion was made that he would make a good special district judge for the county, which is in Judicial District 15. He explained, "Judge Bill Ed Rogers called and was kind enough to visit with me, and Judge Green did too. Judge Rogers nominated me. Nine other judges had to sign off on it." The nine other judges in the district had to approve Sprouse too, which they did upon Judge Rogers' recommendation. In 1986 Judge Sprouse became Sequoyah County's special district judge, a post now filled by Judge Lawrence L. Langley. As the special district judge, Sprouse said he oversaw divorces, misdemeanors, protective orders, small claims, and criminal docket arraignments, among other chores. In 2010 Associate District Judge A.J. Henshaw decided to retire. That post is filled through election. Sprouse ran for the post in 2010 and was unopposed. Sprouse said he could not even guess at how many cases he had overseen in his 28 years on the bench.

"I can't even begin to know the number of cases," Sprouse said. He did remember one year when the number of felony and misdemeanor cases was overwhelming. That was in 2005 when 756 felony cases were filed in district court. "That was the high point," he recalled. "It was just mind boggling when we  hit that number. I could hardly keep up with it. In criminal cases, you are overwhelmed with drug cases over the years." Sprouse said there is no one case that was overwhelming. "It is the victims who are overwhelming."

Sprouse explained, "There certainly were some sad cases. The child abuse cases, the victims are so young and helpless. It's the impact on that life, on the victim, who will have to deal with that trauma forever." Sprouse said the judges, the attorneys, and all others may have to face that traumatic crime for a short period of time. But it's the victim who will live with that crime for the rest of his or her life. And, "In murder cases, that person is gone forever. That's a forever thing, because the trauma is still there."

Sprouse said watching over the courtroom when a child must testify perhaps about the abuse they suffered is difficult. "It is an eye opening experience when a child is testifying...they are actually reliving the event. Now we have counselors available. Those are things we've come to realize over the past few years."

The needs of both the victims and the perpetrators have perhaps encouraged Judge Sprouse to help organize two programs in the county, the Sequoyah County Drug Court and Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA.

"The Sequoyah County Drug Court is my passion," Sprouse said. "I think we're doing well." He explained that then District Attorney Dianna Barker Harrold came to him with the idea for the drug court. The program offers assistance to non-violent offenders from several different areas--the judiciary, prosecution, defense, probation, law enforcement, mental health, social services and treatment communities. In Sequoyah County, People Inc. provides the counseling services. But at the beginning, Sprouse said, "I wasn't a fan of drug court. I was not interested in being warm and fuzzy." But the approval of a retired judge for the program was progressing slowly. Barker Harrold asked Sprouse to step in. "I told her I'll do it for a couple of months, and I'm still doing it 16 years later." The local program began in 1998. Sprouse said he changed his mind about the drug court program."I quickly saw there were opportunities we gave them to change. But they have to want to change. I came to believe I should give them the opportunity and the tools they need to change, and if they don't, well the prisons are still there. The prisons didn't go anywhere." Convicted drug offenders, if found offending again, will lose their probation status and must serve their time in prison.

Sprouse said he has found that the recovering addicts do well if they give back to the community, If they don't, "They unravel." Sprouse said addicts are consumers, who consume, or take, everything from jail food to court-appointed attorneys. But if they give back to the community, through church, clubs, etc., they are less likely to relapse. Sprouse said overseeing those in rehab is somewhat like being a parent. He said, "You want to know, Number 1, who they are with; Number 2, where they are; and Number 3, what they are doing. Relationships are the biggest factor. If they decide to be with the wrong people, well..." Sprouse continued. "I started off pretty green and dumb, but I learned. It didn't take a whole lot of work for me." Sprouse said he would like to see more funding for the county drug court. The program is funded for 50 to 60 participants, and twice that many need help, and often find it even when there's not enough money.

Sprouse said he would also like to have a Family Drug Treatment Center, which also cares for the children in a drug-infected family, and leads to the CASA program. Many families that lose custody of the children are involved in drugs. Through a family program, the children could be reunited with a healthy family more quickly, rather than staying in foster care. The CASA volunteers are the unpaid volunteers who speak to the children and represent the children in courts and other areas. With Sprouse's help, CASA began last year, and last week the volunteers held their first Christmas dinner party. Sprouse said it is planned for the program to expand early next year and add more CASA volunteers, who are badly needed.

Sprouse is hoping that his active retired judge application will be approved so that he may continue to work with the drug court program. "As a volunteer, drug court gives me the opportunity to give back to my community," Sprouse said. His other plans for retirement include traveling with his wife, Debbie, a retired teacher. They are discussing visiting New England to see the fall colors, and a trip to Oregon and the west coast. Sprouse is also active in his church, First Assembly, and plans to continue teaching evening business law classes in Fort Smith. Sprouse said he had one bit of philosophy to leave with the new Associate District Judge Kyle Waters.

"When you work with an institution, your in-box is always full, and it will be full when you leave. You just hope it's not the same stuff."

Judge Sprouse concluded by thanking his community. "It really has been a privilege to serve the county. I have enjoyed it and the people I work with. I have been blessed to work with good folks."
By Sally Maxwell, Senior News Director

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