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County OKs full-time probation officer for drug court

Carlton County’s newly approved hybrid drug court just took another step toward becoming reality. At Tuesday’s meeting of the Carlton County Board, commissioners unanimously approved a budget of up to $40,000 to help fund the cost of a full-time probation officer to work with offenders in the drug court. Commissioner Tom Proulx abstained from voting because of his position in the Arrowhead Regional Corrections (ARC) probation system.

A drug court is a highly structured program that utilizes 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. The state of Minnesota recently gave its final approval to help fund a drug court in Carlton County, expected to start up sometime in August.

The proposal to hire a full-time probation agent to work in the local program came from Kaye Arola of ARC, who stated that the state has agreed to fund $40,000 toward the position for the new drug court, which she explained would only be enough to cover a half-time position. She added, however, that past experience in St. Louis County has proven that it is difficult to recruit a part-time probation agent and there tends to be a high turnover rate whenever a full-time position becomes available.

Arola also pointed to the “very high” caseloads in Carlton County, saying the county has a “disproportionately high” number of felony offenses and drug offenses.

Commissioner Gary Peterson questioned whether it would be possible to measure the results of the program after its first year to see if the local caseload is high enough to merit a full-time position. Arola said the intent is to monitor and collect data on it monthly, such as jail time, intakes and offenders who were sent on to prison.

Commissioner Marv Bodie asked how many people the county can expect to go through the hybrid drug court program annually. Arola said the estimate is approximately 25 based on a .5 FTE probation agent, but clarified that not all 25 would be in the program at any given time but would rather be spaced out over the course of the year.

“A probation officer in this type of program can only handle small caseloads because it is very labor intensive,” explained Arola. “The county could possibly handle up to as many as 50 if it was a full-time position.”

County Auditor/Treasurer Paul Gassert raised the question of how the county could agree to fund a new position when so many of its other departments are already operating short-handed and have already requested that additional positions be funded.

Board Chair Dick Brenner said this was not a case of comparing “apples to apples” and was an entirely different situation. Proulx agreed.

“We have a drug epidemic here in Carlton County,” he said. “We’ve got to do something — it could be a matter of life or death for some.”

Funding for the position will come out of the county fund balance this year and will be budgeted for next year.