A U.S. Army color guard posted flags in a courtroom where tables were laden with flowers, cake and sandwiches. The standing-room-only crowd included congressional representatives and guests from Helena. Wednesday was graduation day in Yellowstone County District Court.
One young Montana National Guard veteran cleared his record of a felony drug conviction.
Another young man went back to college and a started a support group for people with traumatic brain injury.
A third man is on track to avoid a fifth DUI after staying sober for 2 ½ years.
Levi Beaver and Charles Venditti, the two graduates of Impaired Driving Court, and Brendan Halsten, the graduate of Veterans Treatment Court, have more than 1,500 days of sobriety between them. What kept them on track was a team of drug treatment professionals and court officials, led by Judge Mary Jane Knisely. Participants in the treatment courts usually are required to appear weekly before Knisely to answer for their week’s conduct — accomplishments and failures. The consequences for failure can include jail.
When graduation stories are told, the value of the courts is clear: Jobs and college classes replace criminal activity. A father is working again and parenting his children. A veteran has achieved long-term sobriety and joined the family business.
Most participants are jobless when they enter drug court and many are homeless. Virtually all have employment and housing when they graduate.
Benefit to the community and state can be measured in dollars. In 2012, 13 Montana treatment courts shared $797,171 in general fund money. They admitted 351 participants that year, for average per person spending of $4,412. That’s a lot of money, but not nearly as much as they cost before treatment court. The average participant had been jailed half a dozen times and most adults had felony arrests. Many already had been through addiction treatment programs, but had returned to abusing alcohol and other drugs. Before treatment court, this group frequently used ambulances and hospital emergency rooms, caused alcohol/drug-related motor vehicle crashes and stole to support drug habits.
Montana statistics show that recidivism is cut in half for offenders who complete treatment courts.
Knisely is convinced this long-term treatment and accountability model works.
“The lock’em up philosophy doesn’t work and this does work,” she said at graduation.
According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals: “The most rigorous and conservative scientific meta-analyses have all concluded that Drug Courts significantly reduce crime as much as 45 percent more than other sentencing options.”
“Nationwide, for every $1 invested in Drug Court, taxpayers save as much as $3.36 in avoided criminal justice costs alone,” the NADCP reports. “When considering other cost offsets such as savings from reduced victimization and health care service utilization, studies have shown benefits range up to $27 for every $1 invested.”
With the number of people in the Montana Department of Corrections soaring by 2,000 over the past year, and most offenders addicted to some substance, Montana needs to take treatment courts mainstream. These court programs have proven that they work. Now these good models must be supported to meet more of the need for addressing the addictions that play a huge role in crime and in child neglect.
State funding for treatment courts has been fairly level since the Legislature’s first appropriation several years ago. This next session must update that support, based on demonstrated success, and invest in programs that work better than prison to end the cycle of crime and addiction.