County considers specialty court for drug, alcohol offendersCarlton County has the drug and alcohol offender numbers of a county three times its size. Its jail population is bursting at the seams, and the recidivism rate is on an uphill climb. Specialty courts just might be the answer.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Carlton County has the drug and alcohol offender numbers of a county three times its size. Its jail population is bursting at the seams, and the recidivism rate is on an uphill climb.
Specialty courts just might be the answer.
In a presentation to the Carlton County Committee of the Whole on Tuesday, Theresa Bobula, Sixth Judicial District drug court coordinator, told commissioners that the successful drug and felony DWI specialty courts on the Iron Range and in Duluth could provide a footprint for Carlton County to follow.
She explained that the specialty courts are highly structured programs that utilize a treatment-based approach coupled with intensive supervision and judicial oversight in lieu of incarceration for chemically dependent offenders. Participants are mandated to spend a minimum of one year of documented sobriety in the program.
She went on to say there has been a lot of interest in starting up a specialty court in Carlton County, and the numbers in the criminal justice system certainly back that up.
“Carlton County has been described as the ‘perfect storm’ for criminal offenses,” she said. “Between the Interstate traffic along I-35 and the route north via Highway 33, the population swells. From where you sit, you have so much traffic through your county that it feels as though you’re a community of 80,000 when you look at the number of criminal cases you have.”
Bobula went on to point out that law enforcement in the county has an unusually high number of vehicle stops for a county of its size. The public defenders in Carlton County have the highest caseload in the district and at one point had the highest caseload in the state. In addition, she said, the county has seen a rise in methadone abuse cases and a spike in heroin abuse.
Bobula said the situation has put a strain on the county and its criminal justice system and has led to the issue of jail overcrowding as well.
“There has been a steering committee looking at how the county can reduce jail time,” she said. “With the kind of numbers the county is facing and the amount of time people are spending in jail, a specialty court program could help solve some of these issues.”
As an example, she said the number of people facing fifth-degree drug charges in Carlton County during the time period from July through December 2012 spent a total of 692 days in the jail.
“If you do the math, at about $70 a day per capita,” said Bobula, “that amounts to over $48,000 for people sitting in jail waiting for the court process to go through the legal channels. Of the number of folks in the Range drug court during a similar time period, they spent 112 days in jail, and that’s a lot less time than the 692 in Carlton County.”
Bobula said she recently submitted a grant to the state of Minnesota, requesting financial support to expand the drug court system to Carlton County. The two-year grant would provide $147,000 in state funding to cover a half-time coordinator’s salary, drug testing and money for training team members. A county buy-in would be required in the form of supporting the cost of a probation agent to work in the specialty court system at an approximate cost of $73,000 a year (though Bobula said only a half-time position would likely be necessary at the start). Each offender in the program would be required to pay $100 a month through the court system in order to participate.
Bobula said she’d like to come back to the county at the end of October or early November, after word is received about the grant funding, with the hope the county will be willing to sign on to the program at that time. Though the state money wouldn’t be available until July 2014, she said she’d like to see training get underway as early as January.
Bobula indicated the local judges have voiced support for expanding the specialty court program to Carlton County, and so have the probation agents, law enforcement and care providers. She said such support is essential to the success of the program, since it requires a team approach. Each participant is required to confer with a judge on a weekly basis, and probation makes frequent home visits. Treatment providers then keep the entire team up to date on how the participants are doing with their drug or alcohol rehabilitation.
The Carlton County program would likely be based on the one currently in use in Hibbing and Virginia, which takes offenders with third-, fourth- and fifth-degree drug charges as well as felony DWI cases.
“That is our proposal for Carlton County, to take those levels of cases out of your jail, for the most part, and into specialty courts,” explained Bobula.
Judge Dale Wolf, who was in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting, voiced full endorsement of the specialty court process.
“I haven’t had anyone who is addicted come out of the criminal justice system and say that they are better off,” he stated. “Anyone who had dealt with addicted offenders knows that it is way more effective for their personal and public safety to go through more intense supervision, with consequences if they don’t abide by the rules.”
Judge Robert Macaulay, also in attendance, pointed out that the county spent some $300,000 last year to board prisoners outside the county when the local jail was filled to capacity. He said a significant number of those were addicted offenders, many of whom re-offend as many as four or five times.
“The traditional model just doesn’t work with these people,” he said. “Not only will [a specialty court program] have a ripple effect, but it will enhance our county’s quality of life and public safety.”
Bobula said the hope would be to bring the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa into the loop as well, in order to make the specialty court a truly collaborative program.
“We want to improve public safety and help folks get out of that additive cycle so we can have parents who are home with their children,” summed up Bobula, “and we want to have people who are not continuing to run through the criminal justice system. The other part of the equation is the wraparound services these people can access, such as getting their mental health issues diagnosed. Most people are using their addictions to cover up mental health issues they don’t want to deal with. Those are all things we can address through specialty courts. To me it is very exciting to think about doing this.”