Gazette opinion: Justice and sobriety for all in treatment court

2014-04-08T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Justice and sobriety for all in treatment court The Billings Gazette
April 08, 2014 12:00 am

Judge Ingrid Gustafson’s courtroom was filled Thursday afternoon with nearly 20 drug addicts ready to celebrate sobriety.

Tyler Beattie, 30, brought his fiancee, his parents and a family friend to his Yellowstone County Felony Drug Court graduation with Judge Ingrid Gustafson presiding.

Eighteen months ago when Beattie started the drug court program, he was unemployed with a burglary conviction. He had completed 30-day programs at the state-run Montana Chemical Dependency Center in Butte twice, but had returned to drug abuse after each treatment ended.

“I was good for a while and then went back to the same old friends and behaviors,” he said.

When he volunteered for drug court, Beattie found a team of court officials and treatment professionals who held him accountable for changing his drug-abusing lifestyle. But he had to make the changes himself.

“I just pretty much figured it out, how much I was hurting other people,” Beattie said after receiving graduation congratulations from Gustafson.

He got a job within a week of starting drug court, has since been promoted to assistant manager and is set for another promotion. He became engaged to Kim Christianson, who is expected to graduate from drug court in May.

He will still be on probation till 2017, but instead of doing jail time, he will be working.

Beattie is just one of many drug court success stories. A summary of outcomes from Gustafson’s drug court notes that all but two of 35 court participants had been incarcerated before starting the program. Together, the 35 participants spent 4,445 days in jail or prison in the two years before they started drug treatment court, costing taxpayers an estimated $341,998. All participants had jobs 12 months after starting the program.

Drug court participants are tough, seriously addicted cases.

“Methamphetamine has returned as a major drug of choice among these participants,” according to the drug court report from Addictions Consulting Group. “Over 56 percent are using this drug and 57 percent are using opiates. Sixty-nine percent are injecting these substances.”

The high rate of injecting drug use has been documented in previous Billings drug use studies. This data shows the court also is tackling public health concerns about hepatitis, HIV and other diseases that can be transmitted by needle sharing.

This drug court started nearly three years ago with a federal grant and a capacity of 20 participants. As the federal grant runs out, the state will assume financial support for 20 slots, according to the state budget. An expansion grant will provide federal funding for 10 additional slots. Yet the need for this program is so great that it could be doubled to 60 participants and easily filled with addicted felony offenders, Gustafson said.

This felony drug court is one of seven treatment programs run by four judges in Yellowstone County. Why do our extremely busy judges take time for treatment courts?

“Conventional criminal justice interventions of probation and incarceration, while at times necessary, have not shown to be the most effective means in addressing the unique issues of addicted offenders,” Gustafson said. “Drug courts across the country have time and again shown that with the right court and treatment intervention, offenders with substance use disorders can conquer their substance abuse problems and become productive, law-abiding citizens; all at a fraction of the cost of incarceration and correction programs.”

The data is clear: Treatment courts work. Montana must sustain and expand these courts as part of a justice system that actually rehabilitates offenders and reduces recidivism.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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