A new type of court is coming to town in Hill County, a court designed to deal with chemical dependency.
Hill County Justice of the Peace Audrey Barger said the drug court and driving under the influence of alcohol court that the county is approved to establish will work to help people overcome their addictions, keeping them out of the courts, jails, prisons and treatment programs in the future. Depending on finding funding — an application for federal funds is in the works — the courts could be up and running by the end of the year, if not earlier.
“This allows for the additional supervision necessary to keep them in the community, ” said Barger, who has been spearheading the creation of the courts, “to hold them accountable for abstinence from drugs and alcohol and require them to become employed and attend treatment so that they can become contributing members to our society, including taking care of their families and paying their taxes. ”
A new approach to dealing with crimes
Montana has, in the last decade, been on the forefront of trying new approaches to dealing with people convicted of drug- or alcohol-related crimes.
In 1998, the state Department of Corrections partnered with Community, Counseling, and Correctional Services, Inc. of Butte to open Connections Corrections in that city, designed to work with people who are chemically dependent who are convicted of felonies.
The Warm Springs Addiction Treatment and Change, or WATCh, program, opened Feb. 1, 2002, on the campus of the Warm Springs state hospital to provide treatment and counseling for men convicted of felony DUIs.
That was expanded in 2005 with the creation of WATCh East in Glendive, which also houses women convicted of felony DUIs.
The state has continued to expand its treatment programs, providing an alternative to imprisoning those people convicted of crimes who also are dealing with substance addiction or abuse problems.
But, Barger said, the cost of those programs to the taxpayers in Montana runs about a $100 a day per person. Drug courts provide a much less expensive alternative.
The first drug court in Montana opened in Missoula in 1996. Since then, the number has expanded to close to 30, including five tribal courts with two on Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation.
The courts are established in a variety of formats, including drug courts, DUI courts, family courts and veterans courts, all designed to help people deal with their addiction problems.
Barger began working on setting up the courts last October, and has found support throughout the community for her efforts, including finding members of the teams to attend training sessions for each court.
Havre City Judge Margaret Hencz said she is committed to using the drug court as an alternative to other sentencing, once it is up and running.
“It’s going to be a reality, ” she added.
She said she is very excited to have another alternative.
“I know it’s going to have a huge impact on individuals, ” she said. “It’s going to change lives. ”
State District Judge Dan Boucher said the evidence shows that the hard work in setting up — and then operating — the court will pay dividends.
“I think that it presents a great opportunity for the community, and it appears that where this has been tried in other areas there has been success, ” he said. “It definitely takes a commitment of human resources and time — and some funding — but it has a goal of ultimately saving money and perhaps lives. ”
Havre attorney Karen Alley, who attended the drug court training session for the Hill County court — the DUI training is scheduled for late summer — said she saw the success of the courts while at the training.
“It was interesting to hear from people who have years of experience with these treatment courts and to hear of how these are actually very successful and how they rehabilitate people and help people who suffer from addictions actually turn their lives around to become productive citizens in the community …, ” Alley said. “It was fairly inspiring training to see that, yes, indeed, this idea we have, and this vision that (Judge Barger) has, actually will work. ”
Hencz and Boucher both commended Barger for the work she has done, in addition to her regular workload, in starting and spearheading the effort to create these courts.
“Judge Barger has made a tremendous personal investment in this and should be commended for all the efforts, and I am supportive of the program, ” Boucher said.
A voluntary alternative
Barger said the program is voluntary — people must choose to accept their referral to the drug courts, and participate in the program.
If they complete their required actions, they are rewarded — and, if they fail to complete them they are punished, including possibly being ordered to complete community service or serve jail time.
“Reinforcement is just really emphasized, ” she said.
And the penalties and the rewards are clearly laid out, she added.
“When they enter the program, when they don’t do a certain thing, they know exactly what’s going to happen to them when they don’t do it, ” Barger said. “And they know exactly what’s going to happen to them when they do do it. It’s reinforcement, good and bad. ”
The drug court comprises an eight-member team, with Barger presiding as judge over the courts. The teams also include a prosecuting attorney, defense attorney, a probation officer, a representative of law enforcement, a treatment provider, an evaluator of the program, and a coordinator for the program.
The local judges — and any member of the team — can refer people to the program to receive its services. The team meets each week to evaluate referrals, with any member of the team able to veto the referral.
Barger said a key to the program is making sure the program is appropriate for the offender, and the offender will be able to work in it. If anyone believes it will be a waste of time for the court to work with an offender, the court won’t work with that person and will send them back to the original court to be sentenced.
The program includes treatment, testing and keeping a very close eye on the person who comes before the drug court.
An obvious need
Members of the team working on creating the courts say the need is obvious.
Boucher said that, while he has no evidence that Hill County is any better or worse than other parts of Montana, repeat use of and addiction to drugs and alcohol is a major problem here.
Alley said that in her six months of practicing with LorangLaw in Havre, including under a contract with the state Public Defenders Office, she has seen the need.
“Most of the clients I deal with are struggling with some kind of addiction, ” she said.
Barger said the problem has been obvious to her in her years of working in the legal and criminal justice system. She has seen people start out as juveniles in need of help, move up to juvenile court cases, then on to the District Court system, then seen their children start it all over again.
“For a lot of these people, it’s just a cycle, ” she said. “It’s not just the people, it’s generational. We need to stop the cycle so their families are raised differently so there isn’t that cycle.
“Most of it is because there’s been alcohol and drug abuse in their families for as long as they remember, ” Barger added. “They don’t know how to live any differently. ”
Hencz said creating change is the key.
“The drug and alcohol court is really designed for the repeat offenders, ” she said. “The whole team effort is about helping people make changes in their lives. ”
Targetting those in need
Barger said a key is in finding who needs the help and who will benefit from it. The courts will design rigorous criteria for determining who is eligible for the courts, then the judges and team members will apply it to the cases they hear, and decide whom to refer.
Barger said she wants to have a general drug court format for now, because of the smaller population in the area, rather than splitting the treatment up as some communities have done.
“I don’t think I really want to get into the juveniles yet, but I’m not saying it won’t come, ” she said. “There’s money out there (for that).
“This is a big enough project, ” Barger added.
While the program is designed to help repeat offenders, that could still apply to first-time offenders as far as DUIs or drug charges. Some people will have records of a string of minor in possession of alcohol charges or youth alcohol-driving charges or other offenses, Barger said.
“So, when they get their first DUI I’m going to be looking at it … there’s other things other than just the fact whether it’s a first offense …, ” she said. “That’s the whole idea of this court is you have to look at each person individually. ”