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From the Bench - Specialty courts explained

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By Judge Frank Kundrat

In Central Minnesota and other jurisdictions, various specialty courts have been instituted to address ongoing problems caused by addiction, substance abuse and family violence.

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Drug court has been in existence for about 10 years. It is a special court that handles cases involving drug-using offenders. These offenders are placed in comprehensive supervision, drug testing, treatment services, and have immediate sanctions and incentives for cooperating and completing treatment.

Various professionals work together as a team in the drug court setting: judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, substance abuse treatment specialists, probation officers, law enforcement and corrections personnel, educational and vocational experts, community leaders, and others. The offender is confronted and forced to take ownership of their substance abuse problem and deal with it effectively.

The emphasis of drug court is on treatment and prevention as opposed to prosecution. The goal is to correct the offending behavior in order to stop future substance abuse and associated criminal activity. There is also a cost savings to the community in that it is much less expensive to address and treat drug abuse problems than to incarcerate an individual for a drug use offense. An individual has the incentive to either participate in the programming and correct their substance abuse problem, or go to jail.

Family dependency treatment court is an offshoot of drug court. This court is also another alternative to prosecution of persons for substance abuse offenses, and works with families that have a child found to be in need of protection or services because one or both parents has a substance use disorder.

A team approach is also applied in these cases, which involves the collaboration of judges, coordinators, county attorneys, parents, the attorneys for each parent and child, child protection services workers, guardians ad litem, treatment providers and evaluators.

The goal of family dependency treatment court is to engage parents in treatment in order for them to address their addictions and ensure that their children's best interests are being served through the recovery of the parents and the family from alcohol and drug abuse problems causing the family trauma and disruption.

Another fairly recent addition to the court docket is domestic violence court. This is designed to address traditional problems of domestic violence, such as various threats to victims within the family; mental, physical, and emotional abuse; and other problems related to violence in the home.

The individuals eligible for such court are repeat domestic violence offenders. A judge presiding over the court works with a prosecutor, assigned victims' advocates, county social services, and the defendant's attorney to ensure that the victims of the individual and all forms of intimidation from them are eliminated throughout the entirety of the judicial process.

It also works to provide the victim with the housing and job training he or she needs to begin independent existence from the offender, and continually monitors the offender in terms of compliance with protective orders and substance abuse treatment. The offender is also directed to obtain the necessary treatment and counseling to address the underlying anger and substance abuse issues that underlie their violent behavior.

The community benefits greatly on reducing this problem through reduced disruption from violence in families and the costs of housing, treating, and protecting the victims.

Mental health courts also exist in Minnesota for some people who have been charged with a crime and have a psychiatric disability.

The purpose of this court is to deal with the crime in a way that addresses the mental health needs of the individual. Their mental disability is the focus rather than criminal behavior. The emphasis is on treatment and medical care supervision as opposed to prosecution. Again, a substantial savings to the community is realized if the offender is treated and the underlying problem corrected, as opposed to locking them up for an indefinite period of time at great expense to the public as well as to the individual involved.

Juvenile court is a form of specialty court in that it hears specific cases relating to offenders younger than the age of 18, families and children in need of protection and services, children that are repeatedly truant from school, matters relating to child placement out of the home, working with parents to remedy their harming of their children's best interests, and the placement and adoption of children by nurturing families. I will discuss in more depth the operations of juvenile court in an upcoming article.

Our Minnesota courts are continually evolving and developing various judicial remedies to address the underlying problems of society, for the overall benefit and protection of all the people served.

• • •

Judge Frank Kundrat is a 7th Judicial District Court Judge and presides over courts in the city of St. Cloud.

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