Douglas County is part of a shrinking minority in Minnesota when it comes to not offering special courts to tackle the hardest substance-abuse cases.

Of Minnesota’s 87 counties, 65 offer courts that seek to provide treatment for addiction instead of punishment to repeat offenders. Many of these courts have launched in the past five years, and several other counties are beginning the work to start their own. Commonly called “drug courts” or “DWI courts,” they focus on people convicted of drug-related crimes or drunk-driving offenses, or a combination of the two.

“Treatment courts are one of the most researched and proven, effective criminal justice initiatives across the country and even across the world,” said Abby Kuschel, state treatment court coordinator. “That’s probably the driving force behind counties that want to implement them.”

‘Worst of the worst’

Douglas County has not offered a drug court, although interest surfaced at a recent opioid task force meeting in Alexandria when a guest speaker from the Eighth Judicial District said their court has seen defendants turn their lives around.

Karon White, Eighth Judicial District Drug Court coordinator, said their program began five years ago. It targets the “worst of the worst,” people who have been repeatedly arrested for non-violent, drug-related offenses, she said.

Currently, 42 defendants are enrolled in their drug court. Of those who have entered, more than a third graduate from the program and most have had no new serious offenses. Half of graduates had no known relapses, a half dozen earned their GEDs, and 15 of 16 who entered court without their driver’s licenses got them. Fourteen of the 18 who entered unemployed landed full-time jobs, she said.

Drug courts look at the entire person and try to determine whether their addiction is causing them to commit crimes; if so, then helping them with their addiction can also end their involvement with the criminal justice system.

“I think drug courts work,” White said. “I believe in them wholeheartedly. If it takes a village to raise a child, maybe it takes a team to get an addict in recovery.”

Federal officials believe in them too, she said, so much that they are providing significant amounts of grant money for them.

In 2018, federal funding for treatment courts jumped to $165 million, up 50 percent from the previous year, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. In Minnesota, Goodhue County and the 10th Judicial District each received close to $500,000 to either start or enhance a treatment court, and the Sixth Judicial District received $550,000 to start a court for veterans.

White said participants receive “intensive” supervision, undergo random drug testing and random home checks and do 50 hours of community service. They have probation officers and have to report where they are at all times.

“It’s not the hug-a-thug program that most of my people in law enforcement think,” White said.

Local drug court iffy

However it’s difficult to gauge whether there is enough interest to start a drug court in Douglas County.

“If there have been conversations about a drug court in Douglas County, I’m not aware of them,” Alexandria Police Capt. Scott Kent told the task force.

Doug Paulson, executive director of New Visions Center, a residential treatment center in Alexandria, called drug courts “a missing piece in this community.”

Reached after the meeting, he said Douglas County should take note that other counties are adding treatment courts.

“That should tell you something,” he said. “In the 1980s, it was, ‘Let’s incarcerate everybody, let’s lock up the dealers.’ The prison population has exploded and the problem is still here.”

Douglas County’s two judges, Timothy Churchwell and Michelle Clark, deferred comment to Kyle Christopherson, communications specialist with the state judicial branch. Christopherson said the process is a slow one requiring buy-in from many offices, and that organizers also need to arrange funding once the federal grant money runs out.

In some cases, there is disagreement about whether punishment or treatment is more appropriate for drug-related crimes, he said.

“Do we punish these people or treat their addiction?” he said. “It’s a philosophical hurdle in many cases that we need to get past.”

Douglas County Attorney Chad Larson said the county considered starting a drug court about 10 years ago and opted against it. Treatment courts require participants to appear much more frequently in court, while the court docket is already so strained that hearings have to be scheduled months out, he said.

The county already uses some drug court features, such as allowing low-level addicts to keep their records clean by submitting to random drug testing, he said. Larson also works closely with the probation office and recommends treatment when it’s appropriate, while judges are careful to weigh the needs of the defendant against the needs of the community, he said.

“Currently we do a pretty good job in considering all those elements dealing with a repeat offender even though we don’t call it drug court,” Larson said. “We don’t just throw away the key on those folks.”

Still, with two fairly new judges on the Douglas County bench and repeat offenders locally, it might be time to look into the topic again, he said, adding, “I’m not opposed to looking into the drug court.”

Not without critics

Drug courts are not without their critics. In a sharp 2017 report, New York-based Physicians for Human Rights contended that drug courts perpetuate a system of criminalizing substance abuse, which it argued ought to be treated as a medical condition. It found that some courts punished participants who relapsed and prohibited prescription medications as a path toward ending opioid addiction. And it pointed out that some places, especially rural counties, lack treatment programs strong enough to help addicts succeed in a drug court program.

In its study summary, Christine Mehta, a lead author, said, “Our study shows that while drug courts promise treatment rather than punishment, they face serious challenges in living up to that promise. … Drug courts regularly set participants up for failure.”

Reached recently, White said federal grants do not allow drug courts to deny participants access to medically-assisted treatment such as suboxone to wean off heroin, and her program allows the use of prescription drugs aimed at addiction.

“When drug courts first began and even up to recently, assisted treatment was not acceptable in the drug court program but I definitely believe we are moving away from that philosophy,” she said. “Philosophically, drug courts as a whole have changed.”

In 2012 and 2014, the Minnesota Judicial Branch released two evaluations of the state’s drug courts. The studies found that those who participated in drug courts went back to jail less and spent fewer days behind bars than those who didn’t participate. They also found jobs, boosted their education levels and got up-to-date on their child support obligations.

To start a drug court, communities need to show there’s a need, and get cooperation from judges, prosecutors and law enforcement. Planning takes at least a year to ensure proper training.

“It’s a pretty rigorous process to start a treatment court,” said Kushel, the statewide drug court coordinator. Still, the investment pays off, she said. “Our goal is statewide access to treatment court, access in every county.”