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Grand Forks-based drug court celebrates 10 years of service

The Grand Forks County Courthouse photographed from the east side of South 4th Street on July 10, 2018. The courthouse still has globed lamp posts near its entrances and the statue of Themis on its dome, but the view of the courthouse is often obscured by tall trees that have sprouted up across its campus. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

As a man who once faced drug charges, Adam Smith of Grand Forks said he and others would have shook their heads if told two years ago he would be helping others get sober.

But now he is a recovery specialist for the Douglas Place treatment center in East Grand Forks, and he attributes his success to the Northeast Central Judicial District's Adult Drug Court. The recent court graduate said the Grand Forks-based court has given him the tools to help himself, and others.

"If it weren't for this program, I'm sure I would be in prison right now," he said. "This program has opened up my eyes."

Drug court graduates, judicial officials and local leaders filled a courtroom Tuesday at the Grand Forks County Courthouse to celebrate the program's 10-year anniversary. The program outside of criminal court is meant to prevent recidivism by keeping offenders accountable with treatment sessions, court dates and other requirements.

It also gives participants a chance to reduce jail time or, in some cases, avoid time behind bars completely, said Nancy Yon, an attorney who played a role in implementing the program.

But drug court is not a "get out of jail free" card, said Anna Dearth, a defense attorney who is involved in the program. It lasts at least 12 months, and participants must meet with judges once a week in court, attend two alcohol or narcotics anonymous meetings per week, successfully complete treatments, take random drug tests and be employed, said Judge Jason McCarthy.

"All of the people who are in this program made the choice to be here, and it was absolutely, positively the more difficult choice," Dearth said. "It would have been much easier to sit in jail and get free meals and have a roof over your head than it is to do the things that these people have to do."

The drug court has room for 25 participants at a time, and it currently has 17 students.

In its decade of service, the Grand Forks drug court has graduated 74 drug offenders with 93 dropouts, according to statistics from local parole and probation officer Christin Thelen. There have been 113 applicants who were not accepted into the program because "they didn't want drug court, the individual was not recommended for treatment or the individual absconded during the process," Thelen said via email.

Yon said success of the program cannot be defined by numbers alone. She noted women in the program have given birth to children who are free from drugs or alcohol in their systems. Others go on to finish secondary education and have successful careers.

"The program is difficult, intensive and long," she wrote in an email. "It is our most intensive treatment court and option in Grand Forks. ... We need to also look at success as exhibited through the participant's personal achievements, employment, education, improved relationships, etc."

Those who do not successfully complete the program go back to criminal court for revocation of probation, which could result in being sentenced to the maximum time permitted by the crime they committed, she said.

Arrests have decreased significantly for graduates of the drug court, McCarthy said as he cited statistics. In 2016, the last time the county conducted a study of the statistics, no graduates were arrested in the year following their graduation from the court, he said. Only one graduate from 2015 reoffended within a year with a misdemeanor charge.

"In short, drug court saves dreams, it saves families and, most importantly, it saves lives," he said.

The court almost was shut down after budget cuts in 2016 forced the state to cut judicial referee positions in Grand Forks. But officials came together to make the program work with the resources they had, Yon said.

Those who go through drug court are strong people who can contribute to their communities, Dearth said, adding residents should support not only the program but affordable, preventative treatment.

Smith had words of advice for drug offenders who are participating in or applying for drug court.

"These people are not your enemies," he said. "They are here to help you."

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

(701) 780-1248
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