Treatment courts bringing new approach to criminal justice in Minnesota
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VIRGINIA, Minn. — Jennifer Rich long struggled with addiction, trying to remain sober but always falling back into the perilous grip of methamphetamine.
At one point, Rich maintained seven years of sobriety — before a relapse sent her back into a helpless spiral.
Rich said she found herself in and out of the doctor's office, suffering from a number of health issues that she was sure would kill her sooner or later.
That was until one summer day three years ago — the day police showed up at the door of her Mountain Iron home.
Drug task force officers had caught Rich selling meth to a confidential informant in a controlled buy. The officers raided her house, looking for any drug evidence. They placed her under arrest and she was charged with two felonies.
Today, the 43-year-old proudly discusses that fateful day — quick to point out that she considers it to be one of the best days of her life.
"Getting busted saved my life," Rich said recently. "When the police showed up at my house, I kind of had a sigh of relief. It was what I needed. I needed out and I couldn't do it on my own."
Rich said she gladly enrolled in the Range Hybrid Treatment Court, a specialty court program that allows chemically dependent offenders an opportunity to stay out of prison while undergoing treatment and intensive supervision.
The program, which takes a minimum of a year to complete, is one of a growing number of specialty courts in Northeastern Minnesota tailored to address the addiction and mental health challenges that are often the root of criminal behavior.
The specialty courts bring together judges, prosecutors, public defenders, law enforcement, probation officers and treatment providers in a team setting, where they collaborate to manage each participant's case with a goal of achieving long-term sobriety.
For participants like Rich, that means frequent court appearances — weekly, at first — along with regular check-ins with a probation officer and many random drug tests along the way.
Rich, who graduated from the drug court program in February 2015, has gone a little more than three years without using meth.
And, unlike her earlier seven years of sobriety, she said she doesn't feel the temptation to fall back into her old lifestyle.
"I feel much stronger now than I did the first time," Rich said. "The things I've learned and accomplished and gone through, it's built me up differently."
Courts expanding from urban to rural
Rich recently returned to the St. Louis County Courthouse in Virginia for a reunion of sorts.
The hybrid court was celebrating its 10-year anniversary of serving defendants on the Iron Range.
The origin of specialty courts in Minnesota dates back to 1996, when Hennepin County was the first to launch a drug court. But the expansion of programs to the more rural areas of the state has been slower.
Duluth, the biggest city in the 6th Judicial District, has drug, DWI and mental health courts — each one with its own judge, support team and dozens of participants. The courthouse also offers unofficial programs tailored to veterans and homeless defendants.
For the rest of the district, which encompasses a large geographical area but a relatively small population across St. Louis, Carlton, Cook and Lake counties, the key has been innovation.
The Range court, for example, is based in the Virginia courthouse, but also takes cases from the Hibbing courthouse. The program started in 2006 as a drug court, but three years later a decision was made to begin accepting felony DWI offenders as well.
"We cover such a wide area, from east of Aurora all the way to Hibbing, and from Cotton all the way up to International Falls," said Gary Pagliaccetti, a judge at the Virginia courthouse. "It does take some creativity, but it always comes back to the team working on it."
Carlton County added its own drug court in 2014. And even Cook County, one of most sparsely populated areas of the state, is now preparing for the opening of a treatment court.
The expansion of specialty courts in Minnesota has been bolstered by support from the Legislature and outside grants — including more than $2.6 million in grants announced Friday from the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Success on the Range
Pagliaccetti, a judge since 1989, admitted that he was skeptical when talks began to establish a speciality court on the Range.
He later became the court's presiding judge, meeting every week with the treatment team and participants.
"As I started to learn about it and become involved, I became more enthusiastic," he said. "It doesn't take too many sessions for you to start seeing the change in people. It's just so dramatic, when you start to see that. This is a good thing."
In 10 years, the Range hybrid court has served more than 275 participants. About two-thirds of them have successfully graduated from the program, maintaining sobriety for at least one year, according to statistics provided by coordinators.
Sally Tarnowski, the chief judge of the 6th Judicial District, said that makes the program one of the most successful in the state.
"We know through research and practice that treatment courts are more effective than jail or prison in rehabilitating offenders," she said. "They're more cost-efficient than any other criminal justice strategies. And we know that those with drug-abuse factors have better outcomes than those on standard probation alone."
Dan Lew, the district's chief public defender, said the success of the program makes the case that treatment, not mass incarceration, is the best route for drug offenders.
"We've demonstrated something to the community at large," he said. "Just locking more people up in jail won't cure addiction."
A week-by-week approach
On a recent Thursday afternoon, the dozen team members that handle the Range court gathered for their weekly meeting in a room typically used for jury deliberations.
It's here that they discuss each participant's case, tracking the progress of those doing well and considering how to address setbacks experienced by others.
Participants who stay sober, keep in touch with their probation officer and follow treatment guidelines advance through three phases of the program, having conditions loosened along the way. Those who run into trouble will face sanctions, including jail time.
On this afternoon, the team was welcoming two new participants. Jon DeCent and Dewey Dobbins sat at the end of a long table, telling the team they were ready for a change.
DeCent, a 22-year-old from Deer River, pleaded guilty this summer to fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance. If he successfully completes the drug court program, the offense will be kept off his record.
"It's hard to explain what a sober life is when I'm here, because I've never been known as sober," DeCent told the team. "Out there, nobody knows about my drug use. I go to church twice a week. I'm a big part of my community. I've got a good thing going out there. I gave myself a little bit of a speed bump, but I know what I have out there."
Mark Muhich, the public defender who works on the team, had a bit of wisdom for DeCent and Dobbins before they headed into the adjacent courtroom for their first session in the program.
"We're based on incentives and sanctions," Muhich said. "Make us give you the incentives, not the sanctions. I always say that people are masters of their own ship in this program."
Finding motivation to stay sober
Bill Foster can attest to the commitment required to make it through the year-long program.
Foster, 58, said he struggled with addiction for most of his life before he entered the hybrid court after his 2012 arrest for possession of meth.
"I didn't like to do anything at all unless I was high," he said. "That was kind of all I ever wanted to do since I was 7 or 8 years old."
Foster said he went through periods of sobriety at times, only at the behest of his then-wife and his kids. "But it was never what I wanted," he said.
Foster said he was homeless at the time of his arrest and had little desire to make a change when he was approached about enrolling in the drug court.
"I said many times that I'd rather just sit in jail," he said. "It wouldn't cost me anything."
That philosophy changed once he began working with the team and attending court sessions every week with other participants facing similar circumstances.
"There's good people in the program; they always had smiles on their faces," Foster said. "I got to the point where I didn't want to let anybody down. They had so much of their time and selves invested in me. Somewhere during that whole deal, I made the decision that I'm going to stay sober."
Today, Foster is off the streets, living in Hibbing. He does building maintenance for a living. And his children are back in his life.
"There's a lot of good things that came with it," he said of the program. "I've seen how much people actually care. Inside, I began to care, too, and wanted to be sober for my family."
The judges who preside over the specialty courts agreed that change is quickly apparent in participants. Tarnowski, who presides over the Duluth mental health court program, cited the trust that participants build up with the team members.
"I will have people say to me in open court — with a prosecutor and a probation officer and a police officer present — 'Judge, I used meth over the weekend,' " Tarnowski said of treatment court participants. "That does not happen in regular court. Not ever."
Programs receive strong reviews
Several studies conducted in recent years have found that drug and DWI courts across the state have led to cost savings by lowering recidivism rates and reducing incarceration in the state's crowded jails and prisons.
A 2014 study commissioned by the Minnesota Judicial Branch found that drug court participants spent an average of 74 fewer days in custody. The evaluation placed the cost savings per participant at $4,288.
A study funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that same year reported that six of seven DWI courts in the state experienced cost savings due to reduced recidivism. The study reported that the state saw above-average graduation rates compared to the rest of the nation, and that the Duluth-based court saw $4,814 in savings per participant.
Tarnowski said she supports the expansion of specialty courts.
"I would say that our particular district is at the forefront of how we believe in treatment courts," she said. "I don't think there are too many other districts that can say they have that many different treatment courts, certainly per capita."
The district took another big step just last week, earning certification from the state for the new treatment court in Cook County.
That newly established court doesn't have any enrolled participants yet, but the team is already screening potential cases. The county itself has a population of only about 5,200.
But Michael Cuzzo, the lone judge chambered in Cook and Lake counties, said he sees a need for treatment initiatives on the North Shore.
"I think it's like every community that has a variety of different issues," he said. "The treatment court is trying to restore a segment of people that have been run through the criminal justice system, perhaps unsuccessfully. We're trying to get them to be vibrant, productive community members and trying to reduce recidivism. These are issues that impact every community, and that includes Cook County."