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Treatment court intervenes as addiction rises in the oil patch

SIDNEY, Mont. -- Richard Hill's heavily tattooed arms read like a roadmap, but they don't reveal the latest installment of his life story, the surprise chapter of which he's most proud. Two weeks shy of turning 51, Hill owns a thriving flooring b...

Eastern Montana District Judge Katherine Bidegaray meets with people gathered in Sidney to celebrate Adult Treatment Court, an intensive sobriety program for people convicted of drug-related crimes. More than 300 people have graduated from the program in Montana's Seventh Judicial District. Submitted photo


SIDNEY, Mont. - Richard Hill's heavily tattooed arms read like a roadmap, but they don’t reveal the latest installment of his life story, the surprise chapter of which he’s most proud.

Two weeks shy of turning 51, Hill owns a thriving flooring business, which is booked solid through mid-October. His relationship with his wife of nine years is better than it’s ever been. Most importantly, the distance between Hill and his final day of drug abuse just keeps growing, which is no small matter to a guy who first smoked marijuana at age 8 with his parents.

“I am very proud of myself, the way I am today. Very proud,” Hill said. “And I walk with my head up high. No more looking at the ground at people’s feet, being ashamed or embarrassed.”


Hill’s story of change is rooted in the Adult Treatment Court of Montana’s Seventh Judicial District. He’s done more than two years of counseling, drug testing and even regular eyeball-to-eyeball meetings with a district judge to turn things around. He wasn’t always a willing participant, but as the court celebrates its success this month, Hill is a big advocate of the program, from which he graduated in December.

And Hill isn’t alone. Treatment court participants in this district number 325 and are spread across five eastern Montana counties that have seen substance abuse rise with the economic tide of the Bakken oil boom. Justice officials say the infusion of money, more than oil, sparked drug problems rarely seen before 2010.

In Richland County, where the community of Sidney vibrates with oil commerce, criminal cases have more than quadrupled since 2008. Many of those cases are drug related, said Judge Katherine Bidegaray, who introduced treatment courts to the district in 2006 when she started one for juveniles. As drug cases increased, so did cases of abuse and neglect involving drug users’ children.

Almost 100 percent of the abuse and neglect cases in Richland County are drug related. In some cases, mothers are being charged for abuse in the hospital delivery room because of drug abuse during pregnancy, Bidegaray said. Methamphetamine is prevalent.

“Meth seems to turn them into someone who is just focused on getting meth,” Bidegaray said. The problem didn’t begin with the oil boom, but the money the boom brought into the community quickly found its way into the pockets of buyers and attracted big-time suppliers to the area. The story is the same from Sidney to Glendive.

“The ability to buy it and the ability to find it, those two things are pretty scary,” said Olivia Rieger, Dawson County attorney. “We’ve had so many people who had not had access to money and now have a windfall of money.”

Treatment courts, regardless of where they are started, usually stem from prosecutors and judges trying to stop a revolving door of repeat appearances by substance abusers. The 325 people who been through treatment court are not typical offenders.

“Most of them are people who are charged with or convicted of a felony,” Bidegaray said. Studies show that the effectiveness of a program like this relies on its duration - for adults, a program should be 18 to 24 months in length, she said.


Felony sentences, all of which are longer than a year, provide the time needed for treatment to work, Bidegaray said. Studies show that people coming out of treatment, without a structured support program waiting for them, often relapse. Treatment court keeps them engaged.

For example, Hill faces a 20-year suspended sentence for possessing six pounds of marijuana. The charge is what got him into treatment court, where he was sentenced after completing an outpatient treatment program. Even with outpatient treatment in his favor, Hill said it was months into the court program before he realized he needed to change.

Another court deals with people cited for driving under the influence, but only the most extreme offenders, the ones facing a felony DUI or those charged with aggravated DUI, meaning they were at least twice the legal blood alcohol limit when arrested.

The revolving door usually stops for those who have been through the program, Bidegaray said. Among treatment court graduates, 75 percent won’t be arrested again. And the treatment approach is more affordable, she said. A day in prison costs $98 for men, $104 for women. The numbers are less for jail time, but not below $5, which is the cost of both treatment court and DUI court.

A person in treatment court still pays taxes, restitution or child support, unlike someone imprisoned.

In the Seventh Judicial District, treatment court has been around long enough that Bidegaray regularly comes across graduates, many of whom are convinced the accountability required by the court made a difference.

"I play the piano. I have one graduate, he’s getting married in June, and he called me and said, ‘Would you please play the piano for my wedding?’” Bidegaray said. “You just see people get it together and really succeed.”

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