Gazette opinion: The case for swifter, sobering justice in Montana

2013-02-19T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: The case for swifter, sobering justice in Montana The Billings Gazette
February 19, 2013 12:00 am

When Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath spoke to the Legislature last month, he told of a growing judicial workload and reductions in the judicial branch budget. However, he made a case for the Legislature to sustain support for two relatively small programs that have helped courts be more efficient and effective.

- Treatment courts that hold criminal offenders and neglectful parents accountable while helping them deal with the addictions that are a root cause of their unlawful behavior.

- Court Help, which provides proper legal forms and information (but not legal advice) to people who do not have a lawyer.

Why Court Help?

"Almost two-thirds of the domestic relations cases — mostly divorces and parenting plans — came to court with at least one party not represented by a lawyer," McGrath said in his State of the Judiciary address. "Delay and insufficiency is the end result here. Family cases are 25 percent of the caseload in District Court."

That's about 6,500 family law cases a year statewide with litigants representing themselves.

"Other cases must wait while the judge and court staff work with a party that generally does not understand court procedure, does not know the correct forms or papers that must be filed; does not know the appropriate questions to ask a witness or what information the judge needs to decide that case." McGrath said.

People usually file pro se either because they cannot afford an attorney or they cannot find one to take their case.

Since 2007, Court Help has served 30,000 individuals and small businesses statewide. The Court Help office in downtown Billings stays busy with hours four days a week and a staff of one, plus volunteers and interns.

"Drug courts and treatment courts in general can and do save taxpayer dollars," McGrath told lawmakers. Recently, 50 percent of Montana children in foster care were there because of parental drug abuse, particularly methamphetamine. Up to 90 percent of male and female prison inmates have chemical dependencies, and half are addicted to meth. Many inmates also have serious mental illnesses.

"Treatment courts divert some of these people to less expensive and more effective alternatives," McGrath explained.

Montana treatment courts have documented impressive outcomes:

- 82 percent of drug court graduates don't commit new offenses, they get out of the system.

- In a 53-month period, 46 drug-free babies were born to Montana treatment court participants and only one baby was born with drug effects.

"Treatment courts are by far the most effective thing we can do to address drug abuse and the social and crime related problems that go with it," McGrath said.

The proof is in the records of our treatment courts that take addicted offenders and help them become sober, law-abiding, workers, parents and taxpayers.

An appropriations subcommittee has approved Court Help funding for the upcoming biennium at slightly less than the level provided for the past two bienniums. The subcommittee OK'ed a funding request to support drug courts whose federal grants are expiring, but declined a request for $100,000 to cover increased expenses for DUI court monitoring of participants.

As lawmakers build the state budget, they must ensure that treatment courts and Court Help will receive enough money to sustain their efforts to reduce the overall court system workload. Otherwise, justice will be slower and our jails will be fuller.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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