County drug court could offer supervision, treatment, long-term solutions for drug problem

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Addiction and crimes related to addiction present problems for everyone from law enforcement to medical professionals, so a team of Lincoln county stakeholders are seeking to add a collaborative tool that would help them tackle the issue.

The country’s first “drug court” was pioneered in Miami-Dade County, Florida, in 1989, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Currently, there are almost 500 around the U.S.

The intent of a drug court is to provide long term supervision, treatment and assistance to people dealing with substance abuse, while also having the authority and structure of appearing before a judge for regular review of the case, according to the NADCP website.

While named “drug” court, the system can be used for any kind of chemical dependency, such as alcohol addiction.

In Lincoln county, the team working toward establishing a drug court already has the stakeholders on board, said 19th Judicial District Court Judge Matt Cuffe.

Team members include the district court, Justice of the Peace Jay Sheffield, County Attorney Marcia Boris, County Sheriff Roby Bowe, County Public Health Manager Jennifer McCully, Adult Probation and Parole, the State Public Defender office in Kalispell, and local medical professionals.

The goal is to create a collaborative program that holds violators accountable, Cuffe said. Weekly meetings followed by time in front of a judge create immediate feedback on behaviors and allow sanctions and incentives to be adjusted accordingly.

“This adds work to everybody,” Cuffe said. “I mean, it’s probably another ten hours a week for meetings, and then court and all of that stuff, that everybody’s just taking on, with the hope that somewhere down the road we’re going to see results.”

According to the NADCP, drug court participants have shown lower recidivism rates than similar offenders who do not choose that option. The drug courts are offered as an option to certain offenders. They can choose instead to be sentenced in the traditional manner for their offenses.

“Our stated goal is to take high risk individuals who need intensive supervision — non violent, drug-related, addiction related situations — and try to pull them out of the fire before we wind up with situations that the only option is long term incarceration,” Cuffe said.

Those allowed to take the drug court option would be decided case-by-case by the team, Cuffe said. Even felony driving under the influence charges would not be precluded if the team felt the individual could benefit from the program.

Getting results

Boris has experience with a drug court from her time as Mineral County Attorney.

Over her six years, Boris was able to witness the results the intensive supervision could provide.

Each week, the Mineral County team would meet and grade the progress of participants, Boris said. That was followed immediately by a court session where the judge would provide feedback to the participants and impose sanctions or rewards, such as lifting restrictions, she said.

A sanction for failing a urine test could be increased treatment, or sanctions could include time in the county jail before returning to the program, she said.

Cuffe said that in addition to the individual criminal case, there are ripples through the families of those who go to prison for addiction-related offenses.

“Now not only do I have the criminal case, but I have three dependency neglect cases — or more,” he said.

If the system can break cycles of drug abuse and related crimes ranging from theft to domestic violence, the lives affected can go beyond the individual offenders, Cuffe said. It is not unusual for people with substance abuse problems to have a family history with similar abuse.

“If you can give an individual the skills, they can then pass on those skills,” he said.

And those skills may be fairly everyday.

Cuffe said that problems dealt with by both adult and juvenile probation can involve something as basic as setting an alarm to be on time for a hearing.

“Just basic life skills, which we have the opportunity in this situation such as drug court to teach those skills, to break the cycle,” he said. “You can get them and teach them the life skills so they can go to a job interview, so that they know how to deal with things.”

“The idea is to get these folks back to being functioning members of society,” Boris said.

Goals the team sets for participants can range from applying for a job to getting a haircut for an interview, McCully said.

“There’s been stories of treatment giving the incentive of dental work, because people are uncomfortable going to job interviews because of their teeth,” she said. “It can be very creative, but they’re held accountable to certain standards.”

McCully said that having the team that is involved actively helping someone to succeed is significant.

“That’s a powerful group of people to have behind you,” she said.

Some people who Boris saw pass through the Mineral County drug court did not complete it, or had an additional offense down the line, but the majority succeeded, she said.

Boris noticed some people seemed to enter the program with the idea that they would just jump through the hoops, she said.

“But you see a shift with most people at some point, to where they’re not doing it to satisfy our requirements. They’re doing it to get back up,” she said. “That was one of the things I found fascinating and encouraging.”

One graduate of the program would regularly stop by the county attorney’s office just to say hello, Boris said. When he found out he was going to be a father, he came to Boris, excited, to tell her about it.

“It’s very gratifying to know that — a lot of times we don’t get to see, really, a lot of result from what we do,” Boris said. “A lot of the time, treatment court was the best part of my week. It was nice to see these people working hard, and knowing that we could help provide them with some structure and some incentive and some positive feedback.”

Boris still remembers the pride that participants showed at their graduations from the program.

“I think that maybe some of them hadn’t really ever accomplished much of anything prior to that time,” she said.

Cuffe said he is excited by the potential of being able to intervene at a point before he would normally deal with offenders.

“As the district court judge, most of the time, I don’t see anybody until they’re looking at 10 or 20 or 30 years for some sort of serious felony,” he said.

Next step

McCully has been the spearhead on seeking grants, training and meeting administrative requirements for the drug court team, Cuffe said.

“It’s a long process,” McCully said.

Stakeholders have already been having monthly meetings for almost two years, she said. But being organized is not the only thing required.

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance has a discretionary grant program for funding the creation of drug courts.

However, that program is very competitive, and first the entire team needs to receive training from the National Drug Court Institute, McCully said. Though the training is done onsite — meaning that all those involved won’t need to travel to receive it — there are only 25 trainings done each year.

The team already applied for the training once, but were not among the communities that received the training, she said.

“We didn’t expect to get in the first year,” McCully said. “We’re just going to keep trying, keep plugging away, and try to knock off some — there are some large items in that grant that you have to have in place that we don’t,” she said.

One item that McCully brought before the Lincoln County Commission Feb. 28 is implementing a misdemeanor probation office.

The office is not required to receive the grant, but it is needed for a functioning drug court, Boris said. By having one already in place before the county seeks a drug court grant, it makes Lincoln County that much more competitive.

But the goals along the way to setting up a drug court also have their own benefits, Boris said. Currently, there is no option in Lincoln County for misdemeanor offenders who could be on supervised release.

There are other challenges that the team is working on as well, such as medically assisted treatment, McCully said. There is no medically assisted treatment currently in Lincoln County.

Participants could be assigned treatment outside of the county, but then transportation needs have to be dealt with, she said.

Though there are challenges, just having all the needed agencies and stakeholders on board is huge, McCully said.

“We have a huge group that’s been meeting regularly, and big players that are continually at the table,” she said.

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