Kriston Jones didn’t think he deserved a second chance.
He was in jail, appearing in court by video during the height of the pandemic in 2020. He faced a prison sentence for a slew of drug and property crimes and a probation violation, a result of years of his struggles with substance abuse. He had suffered from post traumatic stress disorder since he got out of a five-year stint in the Army, much of which was spent in Iraq. He could see his mother through the video, sitting in the Deschutes County Circuit Court, crying.
“My addiction just took hold of me,” said Jones, who is now 38. “I kind of lost my foothold on who I was.”
Now the decision of what to do fell to Deschutes County Circuit Court Judge Alison Emerson. She could have sent him to prison, but as she reviewed his case she saw that he had repeatedly been ordered to addiction treatment that, for one reason or another, he didn’t get. She read letters from his mother and son, who vouched for him, saying he needed treatment.
Her judgment: treatment, not prison.
Emerson’s decision would alter the course of Jones’ life, allowing him a second chance and an opportunity to help people struggling with the same problems that ailed him.
“It saved my life,” Jones said. “It made me feel normal.”
Each year, an untold number of veterans have cases processed in the courts across Central Oregon. It’s unclear how many because the Deschutes County Circuit Court does not track any statistics about veteran cases.
Many of them, however, face charges like Jones’ — drug crimes, property crimes, disorderly conduct and other misdemeanors. Many struggle with homelessness, traumatic brain injuries, substance abuse, mental illness and PTSD, according to Matt Nelson, Deschutes County’s lead deputy district attorney, who works with a court program that helps veterans caught in the criminal justice system secure sobriety, housing and employment.
These are among the challenges Emerson knows veterans face in civilian life. However, she added: “I feel like we owe it to people who served to give them an opportunity to go and get better … We as a society and nation owe some debt of gratitude to the service that they gave.”
When deciding whether to sentence a person, Emerson weighs the person’s potential to relapse, commit crimes and place the community at risk.
To her, it was clear that Jones had a plan, and his family seemed ready to help him, not enable him. To her, Jones’ story illustrates a person’s potential for redemption, and that the decisions judges make can make a difference if they take the time and think about each person’s individual story.
One of the letters Emerson received came from Jones’ son, Kaedon Jones. He was 15 at the time. He had been close with his dad for a time, but now he was living in Fresno, California. His father’s drug addiction had upended their relationship, and Kriston Jones was surprised when he learned about the letter from his boy.
“He has earned the right to become my best friend as he has always been there for my little sister and I,” Kaedon Jones told the judge. “You … have all my respect as you are a judge and have the power to influence mine, my father’s, my little sister’s, and my grandmother’s future. I would be so grateful for my father to have the opportunity to earn the help he deserves, and the opportunity to see his children grow up as much as he can.”
Reflecting on this letter, Kriston Jones said: “That makes me emotional today, because I wasn’t being a very good father.”
After Emerson’s decision, Jones was still facing criminal charges in other counties. But they followed suit with Emerson. Before he knew it, Jones was in treatment at the Veterans Affairs medical center in White City. He spent months there, got out, found religion, returned to La Pine and was admitted to an outpatient facility and got into transitional housing.
Within a year of treatment, Jones got his kids back. He paid off his restitution to Deschutes County and enrolled at Central Oregon Community College, studying architectural design with the help of grant funds. He worked odd jobs, started a narcotics anonymous group while finishing up school and eventually got a job on the design team at Arbor Builders in Bend. He got married and had another son.
Now Jones lives and works at a transitional house in La Pine. Meanwhile, he runs a faith-based group every Monday at 7 p.m. at High Lakes Christian Church, sponsoring and mentoring people who struggle with addiction, focusing on God being a part of recovery. About a dozen people attend weekly, including a church elder, customer service representatives, construction workers, business owners, a local sports coach. They struggle with alcoholism, anger, parenting.
“It’s not just drug addicts that have problems. We all have problems,” he said. But talking it out helps: “There’s a lot of power in saying things out loud to other people.”
Jones’ life is radically different than it was before. He attends therapy weekly. Before, he would never have spent time with law enforcement, but now he works with probation officers and plays basketball with cops.
Jones knows what it’s like to be judged. He has many tattoos that he acknowledges might frighten some people. He had long been picked on for his name, but he’s grown more comfortable with it during sobriety. He still feels some shame for his actions, but this is what fuels him to be a hand to people like him.
Because some people, he believes, deserve a second chance.
Does the Bulletin have permission from those present to publish that photo? Recovery support groups are usually anonymous. This photo could put people’s jobs, relationships, or health care in jeopardy.
Hi there. I'm the reporter who wrote this story. Yes, The Bulletin's photographer received permission to take these photos. Thanks for commenting.
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