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Judge Ingrid Gustafson
Judge Ingrid Gustafson listens to arguments by David Carter, Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney.

District Judge Ingrid Gustafson is planning to have a new adult drug court up and running in Billings by the first of the year.

Gustafson was notified recently that the Bureau of Justice Assistance in the federal Department of Justice has approved a three-year, $350,000 grant to fund the new court.

“If you can be excited about criminal issues, criminal problems, I’m excited about it,” Gustafson said.

District Judge Susan Watters has been presiding over a family drug treatment court since 2001, and in Municipal Court, which deals only with misdemeanor offenses, three treatment courts are run on the drug-court model, for DUI offenders, drug users and people in need of mental-health services.

Gustafson’s new program will be the first in Yellowstone County aimed specifically at individuals charged with felony crimes related to drug addiction but not necessarily involving children. In the family drug treatment court, every case involves children placed in care outside the parent’s home, and the main incentive for offenders going through the program is getting their children back.

Under the drug-court model, offenders are not simply punished but actively encouraged to deal with the addiction that is at their heart of their criminal problems.

Each offender chosen for the program will work closely with a treatment team that includes the judge, a sheriff’s deputy, a prosecutor, a public defender, a probation officer, a counselor from the Rimrock Foundation and a sociology professor from Montana State University Billings. The treatment team is already in place, and a coordinator will be hired soon.

The grant application for the new court was written by Jeffrey Kushner, who coordinates state drug courts for the Montana Supreme Court-Office of the Court Administrator.

Kushner said Montana now has 25 drug courts, including some in misdemeanor courts and some aimed at juveniles. The federal grant will be used for hiring a coordinator, buying equipment for urinalysis testing and paying for drug treatment through the Rimrock Foundation, among other things.

Kushner said Gustafson’s court will be the first in the state to make use of recovery management checkups, developed by Chestnut Health Systems of Illinois, which Kushner learned of when he was the drug court administrator in St. Louis, Mo.

The checkups will follow alumni for up to two years after they graduate from the drug court, keeping track of their progress in staying off drugs and providing some intervention if needed.

Gustafson, who has been a judge for seven years, said starting a drug court was something “that’s been in the back of my mind since I started on the bench.” She was impressed with the work of the family drug treatment court and she knew from her own experiences that most crimes involve drug use and that most drug users who go through the justice system will slide back into addiction.

And since Billings is the biggest city in the state, she said, “It seems like we should be taking a lead role in dealing with drug issues in Montana.”

Kushner applied for the grant last February. In April, to prove their commitment to establishing a drug court in Montana, Gustafson and the entire treatment team attended a weeklong training conference in Kansas City, Mo., their travel paid for by a separate grant from the Department Justice.

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Gustafson said she hopes to do some partnering with Municipal Court. A DUI does not become a felony until the fourth offense, but if a person charged with misdemeanor DUI had children in the car at the time of the offense, the county attorney will usually charge that person with felony criminal endangerment.

That offender might not have any incentive to enter an alcohol-treatment program, since the Municipal Court alternative is a fine, a short class and a day in jail, Gustafson said, but maybe with the felony charge pending in District Court, the offender would agree to undergo treatment for alcoholism.

“You can use the criminal justice system to force people to recognize they have a problem in their life,” she said.

The plan is to have the drug court running by the first of the year, which is also when a new district judge will be seated to join the judges in the five existing departments.

One thing the team learned in Kansas City was that people who use methamphetamine generally hit bottom, psychologically and physically, about six months after quitting meth, and only then begin to regain normal brain function. Except for having to report to a probation officer, though, such people aren’t getting any help under the current system.

It should not come as a surprise when people get back on drugs under those circumstances, Gustafson said.

Using the drug-court model, she said, “I believe that with quite a few of those people, we could stop the whole process.”

Contact Ed Kemmick at ekemmick@billingsgazette.com or 657-1293.

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