Participants of 20th Judicial District Drug Court get sober, contribute to the community, and rebuild their lives
POLSON — Treatment plans, felony charges, and emergency life events were discussed on a case-by-case basis in the conference room of the 20th Judicial District Drug Court. Each Thursday afternoon, a team made up of healthcare and legal professionals review the progress of its 17 clients.
The final verdict on each case rests solely in the hands of Lake County Judge James Manley who announced milestones for the court. “We have two new graduates,” he said. “That’s a major accomplishment because this is no walk in the park. It’s harder to complete this program in some cases than it is to complete probation.”
In order to complete the roughly yearlong program, clients are administered individual treatment plans. They are required to attend individual and group counseling sessions each week, along with urinary drug tests. Clients are required to obtain adequate housing, employment, and complete community service projects as well as pay off all court fines.
Dolores Joseph, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, was amongst the first individuals to rise to that challenge. After serving a year and a half in Drug Court, Manley said Joseph is the program’s third graduate. “When you get past the addiction, you can see that there are good people in this program who are capable of good things. It takes tremendous willpower to accomplish what Delores has and it’s admirable.”
“We went from processing an average of 220 cases a year to almost 600 cases in 2014 alone... It was clear the criminal justice system wasn’t working.”
— Lake County Judge James Manley
Joseph said her journey began with a referral to the Montana Chemical Dependency Center in Butte where she stayed for 30 days. “Before I could even start the program I needed to get clean from alcohol and drugs. When I finished my 30 day stay, it became about staying clean and that’s where the work really started,” she said.
During her time in the program, Joseph regained custody of her three children and began working at the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Lands Department. She found adequate housing for her family and even adopted an infant relative. For her community project, Joseph helped clean and cook during the annual jump dance ceremony in Elmo.
The Drug Court program monitors its participant’s progress on a day-to-day basis and Joseph said she experienced difficulties during her time. “It was a hard program, it really was,” she said. “Going to group every week gave me something to look forward to. It takes a lot of willpower to be successful. I had my troubles but I got back on track and I kept going.”
Looking back on her journey, Joseph said the program had a lasting impact on her life. “My life was completely different before the program, I didn’t even have a life,” she said. “Now, I wake up happy every day. I’ve regained the self-confidence that I lost because of my addiction. I’m happy to have that part of my life behind me. Don’t do drugs, that’s all I have to say.”
Aside from receiving access to addiction treatment resources rather than a prison sentence, completing the program means Joseph is no longer on felony probation and her drug-related felony charges are wiped from her record. The program monitors its graduates’ progress in six-month terms. “This gave me a second chance,” she said. “I’m thankful for that. I’m going to continue doing everything I learned here and take it day-by-day. I’m going to stay sober.”
Judge Manley said addiction became the center focus for the Lake County District Court during a spike in felony cases. “We went from processing an average of 220 cases a year to almost 600 cases in 2014 alone,” he said. “Almost every, single, case I tried was drug related. Something needed to change. It was clear the criminal justice system wasn’t working.”
In search of other options, Judge Manley said he toured drug court programs throughout the state. “Lake County had a 75 percent recidivism rate meaning people were reoffending – especially in drug related cases,” he said. “Billings has an amazing drug court and their recidivism rate is 25 percent. That to me says this can work.”
The 20th Judicial District Court was established in 2017 through a combination of a $50,000 Gianforte Family Foundation grant and a $399,000 three-year grant funded through the Department of Justice. “Our budget is small so a lot of the specialists working with us are basically volunteering to be a part of this,” Judge Manley said.
One volunteer on the Drug Court team is Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council representative Carole Lankford. She said the rate of Native Americans whose drug related felony cases are processed through Lake County inspired her to join the team.
“We have 17 clients in Drug Court and I would say 70 percent of them are Native Americans,” she said. “We have a major drug problem in this area and it’s affecting all of us whether you’re tribal or not. A lot of the people here need help with their addiction and that’s what this is about. I’m thankful the Tribal Council allows me to be apart of this.”
The 2017 “Addressing the Impact of Drugs” study released by Montana’s Department of Justice reports that drug related offenses in the state jumped 559 percent since 1980. Forty percent of all felony convictions in Montana are for possession or distribution of drugs or felony DUIs. In the study’s introduction, Attorney General Tim Fox stated: “The data is clear: Our state is in the midst of an epidemic.”
Judge Manley said his experience processing Drug Court cases over the past year has provided new insight on the drug epidemic. “A lot of our clients are coming from very difficult circumstances and that’s the underlying issue of their addiction,” he said. “I’m a believer that you can’t punish someone into overcoming their addiction any more than you can punish someone into overcoming their mental health issues.”
Drug Court Coordinator Jay Brewer is a chemical dependency counselor who works directly with the clients on a daily basis. He said the key to the program is in its approach. “Our goal is to help our clients become functional members of the community,” he said. “That is what successful rehabilitation is going to look like.”
Brewer said the program works with individuals on a case-by-case basis. “Each of our clients has individual issues that need to be addressed in order to reach their goals and we’re able to work with them on that level,” he said. “We require them to find work with a livable wage so we help with voc-rehab, we help with CPS cases, we help them with their legal issues, and we help them find housing. Whatever is going to help them be successful we are here to do.”
Chief Criminal Deputy County Attorney James Lapotka is also a member of the Drug Court team. He encourages people to seek help with their addiction outside of the judicial system. “If people are struggling with substance abuse, you don’t need to get a felony before you seek help,” he said. “There are resources like the Western Montana Addiction Services or Tribal Health and they can help you get a referral.”
For more information on the 20th Judicial District Drug Court, call 1 (406) 885-1306 or email: email@example.com