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Treatment court provides pathway to sobriety

WORTHINGTON — Jail time. Crippling fines.

Despite impediments that may be imposed by the judicial system — with a goal of deterring further criminal behavior and substance abuse — sometimes it’s not enough for someone who struggles with addiction. With that in mind, there’s a different kind of court for repeat non-violent, high-risk and high-need chemically dependent offenders in southwest Minnesota who want to get their lives back.

Minnesota Cornerstone Drug Court, an accountability-based adult treatment court, is active in the lives of qualifying Nobles, Rock, Cottonwood, Murray and Pipestone county individuals trying to get sober and integrate back as contributing members to society. The multi-county court was introduced in 2012.

“Recovering is hard,” said Heather Kirchner, treatment court coordinator for Rock, Nobles and Pipestone, Murray treatment courts. “Changing your way of living is hard. So is changing that public perception and integrating back into the community.”  

Kirchner would argue that the four-phase rigorous program is more difficult than doing jail time.

From the day an individual is admitted into treatment court, he or she must make contact with probation every day between 6 a.m. and noon, when they find out if they were randomly selected to provide a urinalysis sample that day.

Initially, an individual may provide a sample three or more times a week, Kirchner said.

That’s just one aspect of the program. Participants may also be subject to random searches, abide by a curfew, have a sponsor and, if they haven’t already, begin the GED process.

They must also have 40 hours of structured time per week, which could be fulfilled by a full-time job, school, community service or treatment.

“So they don’t have all that downtime,” Kirchner said.

One of the key components to the program is biweekly treatment court appointments. Participants report to the courtroom as a team and field questions asked by Fifth Judicial District Judge Terry Vajgrt and Kirchner.

Facing often-personal questions, participants share aspects of their life regarding employment, relationships, housing and other aspects considered imperative to a well-rounded, healthy lifestyle.

A team/panelist of other traditional court participants that includes representatives from law enforcement, probation, the county attorney’s office, treatment, mental health and chemical dependency is also present. Kirchner said the treatment court it looking to have a public defender — who once had a seat — join the team again.

If participants slip up on any of the accountability practices, they may face a sanction. However, they may also be rewarded for success along the way.

“Incentives are just as important, if not more so, than sanctions,” Kirchner said.

Incentives could include gift cards, taxi vouchers or a fine reduction from a criminal conviction.

While the program is highly individualized, these are some of the criteria participants undergo for approximately 18 to 24 months before being considered for graduation.

The time frame provides sufficient time for the average participant to complete each of the four phases: decision, determination, dedication and destination. The program, Kirchner said, becomes less restrictive as participants learn to fully commit to a sober lifestyle independently.

According to a 2016 report by the National Center for State Courts, Minnesota’s treatment courts are funded by multiple sources. Sources include judicial branch appropriation, Minnesota Office for Traffic Safety, Minnesota Department of Human Services, Minnesota Office of Justice Programs, federal funding and local government sources.

All treatment court participants are also assessed an $800 fine, to be paid in full by graduation.

Multiple studies have been conducted in an attempt to determine the effectiveness of adult drug court, including a 2012 Minnesota Judicial Branch evaluation.

The study — which compared 535 drug court participants to similar offenders who experienced traditional court processes over the two-and-a-half years — found that treatment courts first and foremost significantly reduce recidivism.

The study also found that unemployment dropped from 62 percent at treatment court entry to 37 percent at drug court discharge for all participants. The unemployment rate for participants who graduated from a drug court program dropped from about 50 percent at entry to less than 15 percent at graduation.

Treatment courts are not limited to adult drug court. Some of the other 62 Minnesota treatment courts include DWI courts, family dependency treatment courts, juvenile drug court, mental health court and veterans court.

Alyssa Sobotka

Alyssa joined The Globe in July 2017 and covers education and crime beats. The Nebraska native earned her bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Nebraska at Kearney. In her own sarcastic tone, her blog, Aimlessly Navigating, recounts the reality, pitfalls and triumphs of a young 20-something navigating to maturity. Follow her on Twitter: @alyssasobotka

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