A chance to change lives
Dodge County has high hopes for new drug court
By Janice Gregorson
KASSON -- Bev Roche is a dreamer, a believer and a doer.
For months, she has been involved in developing a program she believes could change the lives of young people in Dodge County.
Roche, who has worked in child protection in Dodge County for several years, now is coordinating the soon-to-be-launched Juvenile Drug Court, a pilot project that will start working with 25 at-risk juveniles in the county.
Armed with a $30,000 federal grant, Dodge County is set to become only the fourth county in the state, and the first rural county, to run a drug court program. Roche said that while the initial program focuses only on juveniles, her dream is to have an adult drug court program and even a drug court for families.
"We are going to start with the real minor offenses," she said. That will include juveniles who may have been charged with misdemeanors such as fifth-degree assault or disorderly conduct or even cases of driving under the influence or minor consumption. The common thread will be that drug or alcohol use is an underlying factor.
Currently, teens who get tickets for such things as driving under the influence automatically lose their driver's license and get big fines, she said. In drug court, they will get treatment, will see a judge on a weekly basis and won't lose their license on that first go-around. She also said when a child is diverted into drug court, the judge and a drug court team get to work with the entire family on underlying problems. The ultimate goal is to redirect their lives and keep them from reoffending.
She will be the case management coordinator, but definitely not alone in putting together the program. There are 13 members on that team, including members of law enforcement and corrections, with Judge Lawrence Agerter serving as the chairman.
Nationally, there are 167 juvenile drug courts, 483 adult drug courts, 37 family drug courts and 10 combined drug courts. Another 427 are in the planning process in counties across the United States.
The first such program to start up in Minnesota was in Hennepin County, which opened in January 1997. Dennis Miller, who has worked in the probation/parole field for 27 years, is its coordinator and brought his message to Kasson on Wednesday when some 70 officials from throughout southeastern Minnesota attended a workshop to learn more about drug courts.
The Hennepin County program deals only with adults and handles about 1,800 felony drug cases annually. Three judges, 20 probation officers, eight public defenders and nine prosecuting attorneys are involved in the program.
Their program targets all adults arrested on felony drug charges, Miller said. And while the intent is to turn people's lives around, he said, drug courts are not soft on offenders. The reality is, he said, before the drug court program existed in Hennepin County, 59 percent of adults charged with drug offenses went to jail or prison. Today, 95 percent do. One reason is they are supervised more intensely and, as a result, more violations are caught.
Those not sent to prison have a string of probation conditions that might include community service, fines, time in county jail and treatment programs, Miller said. Even after their criminal case is closed, they have to return to court twice a month for the first 90 days. The judge can add more sanctions at those meetings.
Miller said the number of people convicted of felony drug crimes has steadily risen in Minnesota. In 1981, there were 800 felony drug convictions; last year, there were 2,600.
Officials say alternative programs, such as drug courts, teen courts and community courts, are critical to keep the criminal justice system from collapsing under the weight of ever-increasing caseloads and bulging prisons.
Miller said statistics show that nationally, drugs play a role in 80 percent of child abuse and neglect cases, and in 50 percent of domestic violence incidents. He said that since 1979, the number of drug users in the U.S. declined by 45 percent, but the percentage of robberies, murders and other crimes attributable to drugs has spiraled upward, even as crime in general has declined.
"We are a nation of fewer addicts, but a nation of more harmful and destructive addicts,'' he told those at the workshop.
Miller said there has long been a debate over punishment and rehabilitation in terms of how to best deal with offenders. He pointed to studies that show that 70 percent of drug abusers who are simply sentenced to prison reoffend within a year of being released. And, he said, 85 percent relapse to drug abuse within the first year of release from prison. He said that number increases to 95 percent within three years of release from prison.
There are hundreds of drug courts in all 50 states as well as in nine other countries. A total of 275,000 people are enrolled in drug court programs today, Miller said. As of the first of this year, 75,000 people had graduated from such programs. Miller said a study done by American University shows that 67 percent of the people admitted to a U.S. drug court program between 1989 and 2000 finished their treatment programs.
Miller also pointed to numerous evaluations of drug court programs across the country, showing a reduction in recidivism rates for drug court program graduates as opposed to non-graduates.
Roche said plans are to start with 25 juveniles in the Dodge County drug court program in July. She said the guidelines are still being drafted, noting that each drug court is unique, designed to meet the needs of the county.
"We know our needs will be different than Hennepin County," Roche said. "We know we can make our drug court work for us. I believe in it so much, that it will work."
BOX; A drug court handles cases involving drug-addicted and drug-using offenders, using extensive supervision and treatment programs. The goal: get offenders into treatment early and keep them there long enough for it to work.
Drug courts rely on sanctions that can include incarceration, increased drug testing and intensive supervision to respond to program violations.
There are 697 drug courts in the United States. Another 427 are in the planning process.
Research by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, Columbia University shows drug courts provide more comprehensive and closer supervision of the offender; substantially reduce drug use and criminal behavior; generate a cost savings through reduced jail or prison use.
There have been 220,000 adults and 9,000 juveniles enrolled in drug courts in the nation since 1989. There have been 73,000 adults and 1,500 juvenile graduates from drug court programs.
There have been more than 1,000 drug-free babies born; more than 3,500 parents have regained custody of their children and 4,500 plus parents have resumed making child-support payments.