SANDPOINT — She planned to be a child psychologist, but after taking the LSAT test — almost on a whim — and doing very well, Judge Barbara Buchanan ended up going to law school instead.
Buchanan announced her retirement this summer from Idaho’s First Judicial District to focus on family and travel with her husband.
“I didn’t know any lawyers but people always told me I should be a lawyer because I debate all the time,” Buchanan said. “So, I took the LSAT test and did well and ended up going to law school.”
The move paid off. After almost 30 years as a judge, Buchanan will retire Jan. 30, 2023 – ten years to the day after she first took the job. A district judge must serve 10 years before they can retire.
Buchanan, who is at least a third-generation Idahoan, grew up in Moscow and went to law school at University of Idaho and then clerked for a few years at the Idaho Supreme Court.
She came to Sandpoint in 1986 to assist a local law firm with family law. She was the only woman at the four-man firm.
“There were very few women attorneys at that time and my partners thought that women would like to go to a woman for a divorce in family law cases, so I did a lot of that.”
Buchanan also played an integral role in the original implementation and evolution of the drug court program. The drug court acts as a diversionary program for drug offenders.
The program at first only applied to first-time offenders, but Buchanan helped transform the program into an 18-month long program for repeat drug offenders.
“Now the model is for people who are high-risk, high needs,” Buchanan said, adding it is a way to keep people in the community and out of prison. A lot of the first offenders, to whom the program did cater, did not necessarily need as much intervention.
“First offenders need some early intervention, … early on we tried to do it for first offenders, they didn’t need that much.”
“It was too much for them to have to have that intensive of a treatment program. We have to find the people that really have the high need and that are higher risk,” Buchanan explained.
The drug court program consists of a team of a judge, a prosecutor, a public defender, a probation officer, a treatment provider and, if possible, a community volunteer.
Over these 18 months, participants come in twice a month so the court can monitor their progress. “If they do well we can have quick recognition, try to reward. … And we can have quick sanctions, too, if someone slips up,” Buchanan explained.
Participants also have to attend two 12-step meetings a week, call in every single day, and pass frequent regular drug tests, as well as hold a job. The effort is to help addicts recover in the community, instead of while incarcerated.
“When you put a person in prison for drug use, they aren’t going to come out better than they were when they went in,” Buchanan said.
“My biggest focus has been trying to find something that works – and that’s why I like drug court.” Buchanan, who has a background in psychology, pointed out that many addiction issues are related to trauma.
Isolation during the pandemic did not help, she said. “The pandemic was very difficult. We saw a lot of suicides. A lot of drug overdoses.”
In her career, Buchanan has seen the drug crisis explode. “I probably didn’t really even know what methamphetamine even was fifteen years ago, almost never heard of it,” she said.
“But, we’ve been hit, North Idaho, for many, many years with methamphetamine and it’s never gone away, but now we have fentanyl and that is incredibly frightening,” she added.
“I can’t tell you. It has been a huge problem for my entire career.”
Buchanan, who celebrated 28 years as a judge on Aug. 1, served as a magistrate for 18 years before becoming the first female district judge in North Idaho.
“I became a district judge ten years ago. 90% of cases are drug cases.”
Drug court has since spread to Boundary County.
When asked what makes her proudest about her tenure, she described the success and growth of that program.
“We have a small drug court in Boundary County and it is flourishing,” she beamed.
Buchanan continued. “There is a recovery community up there that [is for] younger people. … A young man who was one of our first drug court graduates that has gotten extremely involved and started … clean and sober activities” for young people.
One regret she has is the inability to launch a mental health court. Right before launch, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare moved toward a contract-based model for treatment providers.
“Health and Welfare did their own treatment. … they did a lot more services, now it’s more contracted out to different companies,” Buchanan said. “Everyone is struggling to get enough mental health clinicians right now. … I am sure we will get one in the future.”
Despite what she may think of as unfinished business, Buchanan said is looking forward to retirement. With six grandchildren and a seventh on the way, she is planning on having more family time.
She has been working in some capacity ever since she was 12, she said. Her husband retired nine years ago and she would like to catch up. The pair have been together since Buchanan was 19 years old and recently celebrated their 45th anniversary.
In addition to spoiling her grandkids and her rescue dog Brailey, she and her husband are also planning a long-awaited lifetime trip to Italy.
But Buchanan cannot quite ride off into the sunset just yet.
“Idaho has a wonderful system. … I have already committed to work for five more years but I’ll work 60 days a year [as a conflict judge] but still retire,” she said.
Buchanan is planning to do civil mediation and help protect children as a “guardian ad litem,” which is a representative for children in legal proceedings.
Buchanan also sits on the board for the local nonprofit Food for Our Children, which works to eliminate childhood hunger in Bonner County.
While she is stepping down as a full-time judge, Buchanan said she has no plans on stopping her public service anytime soon.
She wants to, she said, to keep serving the community, trying to heal the intergenerational pain and trauma “one family at a time.”