DRUG COURT aims to break the cycle of addiction and crime

Sit through a morning of criminal court at the Carlton County Courthouse and it quickly becomes apparent that drug and alcohol charges -- and burglaries, thefts and other crimes to pay for them -- make up a significant portion of the court calendar.

A different kind of court
Judge David Johnson, Duluth District Drug Court, shares a tender moment with a recent graduate. Contributed Photo

Sit through a morning of criminal court at the Carlton County Courthouse and it quickly becomes apparent that drug and alcohol charges - and burglaries, thefts and other crimes to pay for them - make up a significant portion of the court calendar. Now come back every week over a few years, and many of the names and faces will become familiar … because they keep reoffending, most of them to feed an ongoing addiction.

In fact, according to Sixth Judicial District Drug Court Coordinator Theresa Bobula, Carlton County has the drug and alcohol offender numbers of a county three times its size.

The public defenders here have the highest caseload in the Sixth Judicial District and at one point had the highest caseload in the state.

In addition, Bobula said, the county has seen a rise in methadone abuse cases and a spike in heroin abuse. 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.

Apparently, business as usual isn’t working.


Enter drug court, which is set to begin in early July in Carlton County.

“The goal is not only to help people, but also to reduce the amount of time that people are spending in jail,” explained Bobula. “We’re clogging up the jail with people who have felony-level offenses, but really what they actually have is addiction.”

Currently, Carlton County doesn’t treat people arrested for drug-related offenses differently than any other criminal.

Yes, they are ordered to have a Rule 25 assessment, to evaluate drug and alcohol abuse and addiction issues. Yes, like almost every other person convicted of a crime, the conditions of probation will likely include abstaining from drugs or alcohol.

Under the traditional criminal court system, someone on probation is supervised by a probation officer (who may have over a hundred people on his or her list). People on probation may end up back in court because they violate the terms of probation by breaking the law again, failing a drug test or not showing up for appointments with probation.

Once a person violates probation, the judge can sentence them to serve whatever portion of their sentence was stayed in favor of probation. If that person goes to jail, there is no drug treatment program. State prisons, on the other hand, offer drug treatment if the offender chooses to take it.

Then, after serving their time, it’s not uncommon that people are released into homelessness, said Bobula, a situation that is unlikely to provide a supportive environment for anyone, let alone someone with addiction issues.

Specialty courts like the existing drug courts and the felony DWI courts in Duluth, Hibbing and Virginia are highly structured programs that utilize a treatment-based approach coupled with intensive supervision and judicial oversight instead of incarceration for chemically dependent offenders. Participants are mandated to spend a minimum of one year of documented sobriety in the program.


Defense attorney Sonia Sturdevant said the drug court program is about “saving lives.”

“I have some clients that I think would still be alive if drug court had existed before,” Sturdevant said. “Young people. We’ve got to save them, or at least try. It affects the whole community.”

Drug court is a post-conviction process, meaning that it happens after a person has pleaded guilty, but before they go to jail or prison or face other consequences.

Initially, the drug court team in Carlton County will choose only five drug offenders to participate in the program. That number will grow to a maximum of 25 participants as long as the drug court probation officer is only part-time. If and when that probation officer goes to full-time, that maximum number could double to 50.

It’s still only a fraction of the people charged with drug offenses in the county.

“I could have filled that number (25) from just today’s calendar,” Carlton County Attorney Thom Pertler said.

He wasn’t exaggerating, Sturdevant said.

“A lot of older people are tired,” Bobula said. “Tired of hiding it, tired of using drugs … this is an option.”


A team approach

It’s up to the “drug court team” to determine if a person is criminally motivated to commit crimes or motivated by drug addiction.

In Carlton County, the core of that team is made up of the county attorney (Pertler), drug court coordinator (Bobula), probation supervisor (Brian Stevenson), the chief sheriff’s deputy (Brian Belich), public defender (Sturdevant) and the drug court judge (Dale Wolf). Over the past year, all of the group members have attended training together and worked in conjunction to decide exactly how Carlton County’s drug court will work.

It’s the job of the team to determine who gets to participate in drug court, with each of them contributing their own knowledge of a person to make the decision together. The group will also work with case managers and others involved with the drug court participant.

Carlton County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Brian Belich compared it to holding up different snapshots of a person.

“We all bring a different perspective,” he said. “Law enforcement, probation, the attorneys.”

The missing piece of the team right now is a psychiatrist, or other mental health professional, but that piece will come, Bobula said. It has to, because many people with addiction issues have often been diagnosed with mental illness as well. Or they haven’t been diagnosed, but the drugs are part of an unhealthy response to anxiety or trauma or something else.

“All that collaboration is really what makes it (drug court) work,” Stevenson said.

The teamwork won’t stop there. The group will meet every other week for drug court, along with the drug court client, who - along with meeting frequently with the drug court probation officer and being tested more frequently for drugs or alcohol - will come to drug court to tell the judge and the team members how it’s going.

The judge is an integral and very active part of the process, Bobula said.

“The judge gets to know them and know what’s happening in their lives,” she said. “There is a relationship there.”

Drug court operates on a system of fairly immediate rewards and sanctions, she said. If a person comes in and is working and creating a life away from drugs, they will continue moving forward through the process. Someone who is blowing off meetings with probation, for example, would get sanctions. It’s all laid out in the drug court rules, so there should be no surprises, she said.

And, if someone trips up and uses drugs again, there are different sanctions for those who admit it without being prompted versus those which the drug court team “catch” through urine tests or other methods.

“We want to motivate people to change. Just putting people in jail doesn’t motivate people to change,” she said, citing a study that up to six days can motivate but nothing beyond that.

A similar study revealed that if a judge spends at least three minutes each time they see an offender talking and working with them, it makes a difference.

“Let’s say you see your old buddies at the gas station and they want to go get high,” Bobula said. “People tell me the biggest reason they don’t take the drugs is because they don’t want to sit in front of the judge the next time (and admit they messed up).”

Minnesota has 30 different drug courts, all slightly different but all of them meet certain national standards. One nice thing about being a little late to the party is learning from the existing courts, Pertler said.

“It was a novel concept about a dozen years ago - and there wasn’t a lot of research,” Pertler said. “Now the people who are training us are sharing statistics and stories about what has worked to reduce recidivism (reoffending), telling us about people who are successful at getting jobs and staying out of trouble.”

“We don’t have to reinvent [drug court],” Stevenson said. “Other people have already gone through the growing pains. We can tap into that.”

Law enforcement are often the most skeptical about drug court, said Belich.

“It goes against the grain,” he said, noting that holding people accountable for their crimes is at the heart of law enforcement. “What sold me as a law enforcement professional is the intensive testing and the immediate sanctions.”

Qualifying for drug court

There are close to 30 criteria that must be met in order for a person to participate in drug court. Following are some of the most basic criteria for the Carlton County program:

  •  The offender must be a resident of Carlton County who is 18 years old or older.
  •  He or she has to want to participate in the demanding and intrusive program.
  •  He or she has to have been found guilty of a third-, fourth- or fifth-degree drug offense.
  •  Anyone guilty of selling drugs doesn’t qualify, whether it’s a current or past offense.
  •  Anyone guilty of a violent crime doesn’t qualify.

“We want to help people, but we still regard public safety as the No. 1 goal,” Pertler said. “Drug dealing, crimes of violence, would be prohibited. We want this to promote and enhance public safety.”
Perhaps surprisingly, first-time offenders are not the focus. The ideal drug court candidate, Belich said, will be a third- or fourth-time offender who is likely facing jail time. Someone who meets the requirement of “high risk, high need.”

“People who have been through the system multiple times, or been to treatment and failed,” Belich said. “People who don’t have the tools. They just need extra attention through a program like this to get out of the cycle.”

The Carlton County drug court will accept people who have committed property crimes … if the team determines it was because of drugs.

Any member of the team can recommend a person for drug court, but the whole team has to meet to assess whether that person meets the standards and is willing and able to successfully complete the program.

“They have two choices: They can graduate [from drug court] or they can go to prison,” Pertler said. “When you put it like that, they’re motivated.”

Each participant is required to confer with a judge on an every-other-week basis, and probation makes frequent home visits. If a drug court participant is sent away for inpatient treatment or enrolled in an outpatient program, treatment providers keep the entire team up to date on how the participants are doing with their drug or alcohol rehabilitation.

Participants also benefit from new friendships and get assistance with things that will help them function better in society, whether it’s something like getting a photo ID so they can cash checks or finding childcare.

It’s help they might not otherwise get and it’s a motivating force to keep them clean.

“By the time people get involved in the criminal system, they don’t have many people they haven’t burned,” Stevensons said. “They’ve stolen from their parents, broken into the neighbor’s garage, lied to their friends. They’ve burned a lot of bridges. If you’re in their shoes, you would cling to anyone that offered you love and support.”

In Duluth, Bobula has seen parents get their children back after completing drug court and staying sober.

“We know it has a ripple effect,” she said. “By doing drug court now, people will become productive members of society.”

“They can become tax payers instead of a tax drain,” Sturdevant said.

Related Topics: CRIME
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