Drug courts: An alternative to the war on drugs?

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Miami built their first drug court almost 25 years ago as an alternative way to combat the rapid increase in cocaine-related crimes. It worked so well that by 1996, Minnesota followed suit, and now the state is expanding the program.

Following a 2013 Minnesota Legislature funding increase, the Minnesota Judicial Council authorized the addition of six new drug courts in Minnesota last month, bringing the state’s total number to 44 courts serving 56 counties. And officials say the addition will help keep offenders from falling back into the system and save the state money when compared to traditional incarceration.

“What [the researchers] found was if someone was sentenced to treatment [by a traditional court], most defendants didn’t even show up, and the ones who did dropped out,” said state drug court coordinator Jim Eberspacher. “If you don’t supervise the person and continue to provide services, the likelihood of them continuing down a path to sobriety is minimal.  Drug courts attempt to provide all the services necessary to keep the person on the right path.”

A 2012 state-wide evaluation compared 500 drug court participants to nearly 650 similar offenders who did not participate in the drug court program. Over the two and a half year study, drug court participants had a 17 percent recidivism rate compared to 32 percent of those who didn’t participate – almost a 50 percent reduction. Drug court participants also cost the state $3,200 less than their comparison group and showed gains in employment and education.

Minnesota is making a purposeful effort to expand these courts across the state, Eberspacher said, because they provide a holistic approach to treatment and criminal justice.

Defendants enter the drug courts voluntarily where they work closely with a team of judges, prosecutors, defense counsel, treatment providers, law enforcement, educational experts and community leaders. The courts then closely monitor the defendant’s progress toward recovery through ongoing treatment, drug tests and regular court check-ins, while offering sanctions and incentives to foster behavioral change.

“Jail doesn’t fix addicts,” said Judge Shaun Floerke of Minnesota’s sixth judicial district. “… [Offenders need] heavy, intensive probation monitoring.”

Floerke said that many addicts who go through traditional courts don’t remain sober and wind back in jail because those courts don’t emphasize treatment and monitoring. With drug courts, a team is provided for each defendant to ensure accountability and treatment, he said, so that they know the offenders are sticking to the program requirements and receiving help.

“I have four uniformed patrol officers assigned to assist the coordinator with weekly visits with the participants that live within our community,” said Faribault police chief and former drug task-force commander Andy Bohlen. “They will build a rapport with the subjects and provide updates to the coordinator and team on the candidates’ progress.”

Bohlen works with the Rice County drug court, which is among the six that opened last month, and he said the team behind it has been preparing for months.

Rice County drug court coordinator Yvette Marthaler was able to begin work on the county’s judicial branch proposal in April, she said, as well as ensure that all team members involved received training. Because of the new federal funding, all the partners involved at Rice County’s drug court attended two days of federal training together, she said.

“A big part of the work is just making sure that we’re all educated so that we can be fair and consistent,” Marthaler said, “It’s going well, we have a great team.”

In Ramsey County, a new drug court specifically targets veterans. 

“The veterans’ court is the newest problem solving line to come out in the country,” Floerke said. “It’s coming out of the proposition that vets are coming home with a lot of serious issues, and they wind up interacting with the criminal justice system.”

The Rice County court has only been open for two weeks and has not yet had its first case, but the program already has support from many county resources, Marthaler said. Two outpatient treatment providers, Omada Behavioral Health Services and Fountain Centers, will alternate representation on the drug court team, she said, and a residential treatment provider, West Hills Lodge, Inc. will also have a representative on the team. County officials, including police chiefs and the county attorney, have also donated time to ensure that the court is successful, she said.

The multifaceted approach is applied on a case-by-case basis to individually approach the best options for the patient’s treatment, Eberspacher said, which is why he believes the courts have been successful.

“One of the main philosophies that drug courts operate under is that it’s a team approach,” he said.