Profiles in the Law

Life Changer

By Stacy Moe

'I must advocate for the addict … politically unpopular, socially misfit and economically hammered. Alternatives to incarceration for the non-violent offender is my life's work.' Bill Russell has found the place and program to carry out his life's work and blend his abilities as an attorney and pastor as executive director at Union Gospel Mission.

Inspired at age 9 by the character of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and by famed '50s TV attorney Perry Mason, Russell maintained a single-minded goal to become an attorney. He received his B.A. degree in philosophy and political science and received his J.D. in 1979.

'I had a spiritual epiphany after becoming a lawyer. At the time I was a litigator for a firm. I had held myself out as a 'do anything to win' associate. So, the advent of faith and morality in my life was shocking to those around me. The result was my summary dismissal from the firm. Discrimination? Possibly, but it was wise for the firm and me to part company. I had changed,' recalls Russell.

Russell became a prosecuting attorney in Lewiston, Idaho. He served as lead juvenile prosecutor, lead child protective litigator and served in mental commitment cases. In one of his commitment cases, Russell experienced first-hand that looks can be deceiving. A very intelligent and lucid man, claiming to be a specialty insurance salesman, appeared to be very normal, and explained the incident that landed him in court (specifically, imitating a bullfighter in busy street traffic), was a result of an alcohol bender. The man's testimony was so good that Russell let the man continue to testify. Then the case concluded as the man explained he funded his company from precious metals and jewels from all over the universe and that he was worth billions of dollars.

'Off he went!' recalls Russell.

An impression that Russell formed as a prosecutor was that criminals were coming out of prison as more sophisticated and hardened criminals. At the time Russell was seeking a vocation that would be consistent with his spiritual convictions. He met Chuck Colson - notorious as Nixon's Watergate 'hatchet man.' Colson had become a well known born again Christian. Russell went to work for Colson's ministry, Prison Fellowship, establishing Prison Fellowship in the western region. After seven years of constant travel with Prison Fellowship and four daughters later, Russell was looking to settle down. Then he came to Portland's Union Gospel Mission.

Union Gospel Mission is well known as a place that feeds and ministers to the homeless and needy. Russell and the former director of the Mission, Don Michel, conceived of a long term and intensive addiction recovery program focusing on hard-core addicts and non-violent drug offenders. The program, established in 1995, is called 'LifeChange.'

'I helped found LifeChange in Portland, building on the ground-breaking San Francisco Delancey Street program's approach of a peer driven, goal oriented and long term approach with spiritual elements to integrate former inmates into society,' said Russell.

Located in Portland's Old Town, LifeChange can house up to 32 residents. Residents commit to a two to four year Christian-based, residential recovery program. The program is not based on time spent in the program, but rather on specific benchmark goals in recovery that residents meet. Residents must be serious about recovery and making permanent lifestyle changes. Program residents gain an education and marketable skills through work at the Mission's thrift store and with the Mission's homeless services. The recovery approach is peer driven with each resident helping each other in a recovery community. LifeChange residents give back to their 'neighbors' in the Portland area. Each Monday, LifeChange residents work on community projects, such as helping an elderly widow, or working with service veterans to restore a vintage PT boat.

Russell is a strong proponent of treatment as a method of coping with the drug problem, stating: 'By all reasonable measurement America is losing the War on Drugs. Federal spending on drug control has increased from $2 billion in 1982, to $19 billion this year. There is no corresponding decrease in illegal drug abuse.'

One of the most unique features of LifeChange is the length of time residents must commit to recovery, Russell explains. 'To bring about a permanent change in someone's life is difficult work. It took us three years to learn to think like lawyers. Why wouldn't it take equally as long for an addict to break an ingrained pattern of addiction?'

Russell's legal training has helped him in his role as executive director at Union Gospel Mission and in the establishment of LifeChange. 'Law school taught me to think. It also taught me the principles of justice that compel me to keep making progress in the field of addiction recovery.'


The author is communications director for Union Gospel Mission.

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