A full day of discussions of different aspects of law and the legal system ended with a panel discussion of a new kind of court being established in Hill County, drug treatment courts.
Karla Bosse, deputy Hill County attorney and president of the local bar association, organized an all-day series of presentations and discussions of legal issues with local attorneys and judges, in observance of Law Day.
The agenda for the Havre events, held at the Havre-Hill County Library from 9:15 a. m. until 8 p. m., included hour-long presentations on topics ranging from divorce issues and estate planning to the duties and services of the Hill County Attorney’s Office.
Bosse said the event was generally well-attended, with the estate planning session held by attorney Keith Maristuen being standing room only.
The wrap-up was the discussion of the creation of the treatment courts Justice of the Peace Audrey Barger has been spearheading since last fall. She and Hill County Attorney Gina Dahl, local attorney Karen Alley, regional deputy public defender Dan Minnis, and retired state District Judge Dave Rice, who sat in for Judge Dan Boucher, led the discussion.
Barger said the intent is to provide an alternative to imprisonment or sending a person with drug or alcohol problems to a state-run treatment program, which tend to be both very expensive and often ineffective at getting at the root of the addiction problem.
She said her time spent as a legal assistant in the Hill County Attorney’s Office, then as a deputy Hill County clerk of court and now as a judge has shown her the depth of the problem of drug and alcohol addiction in Hill County.
Of the cases she sees, 90 percent involve drugs or alcohol in some way, Barger said.
“This problem is just staggering for us, ” she said.
The concept of treatment courts is to bring together a team, including a judge, a prosecuting attorney and a defense attorney, probation officers, treatment professionals and evaluators.
Those teams meet weekly, to review referrals of new people to the program by judges — the team members all have to agree on every action of the court, including accepting new people — and to meet with the people in the court and review their progress including sanctions for falling back in treatment and rewards for successes.
Alley said part of the success of the courts is a different approach to dealing with offenders.
“What it offers the participants is hope, ” she said. “Sitting in jail, and paying fines, obviously isn’t working. This is not just holding them accountable, it’s giving them a chance to change their lives. ”
Minnis, who has worked with both tribal and county-level treatment courts, and others on the panel agreed that part of the success is the length of time treatment courts work with people. Six months at the state DUI treatment program is not enough — at least two years is needed just to begin to address addictions, he said.
Another is in how relapses are dealt with. Minnis said people working their way through the treatment courts often fall down, and these courts can deal with that differently than traditional programs. In standard probation, violations generally end up with more jail, treatment or prison time.
“What they learn, after about two months, is you can make mistakes, ” Minnis said. “In probation that is looked at a little differently. ”
Dahl said another beneficial difference is its team aspect. The judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, probation officer and the rest of the team work with each other and with the person being treated.
In the traditional court system, the defendant usually will look on the prosecutor as an enemy. In treatment courts, the prosecutor is rooting for success.
“I think that’s why it works, ” she said. “We’re all rooting for them. ”
Rice said the program could make strides to reduce generational problems with drug and alcohol addiction. In his time in the Hill County Attorney’s Office then as judge, he probably was seeing four generations of families dealing with addiction, he said.
He said he looked at treatment courts while he was in office, but the biggest thing then was the money. While the group is applying for grant funding, and Alley is setting up a nonprofit organization to accept donations, funding still is the big issue, he added.
Rice said the key to success will be how the region works to enact the courts.
“I think the big thing is for the community to support this, ” he said.