Missoula Municipal Court no longer refers offenders to treatment courts designed to help people with substance abuse and mental health issues get their lives back on track before their behavior gets too out of control.
Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Jenks said she made the decision a couple of months ago after realizing that only a single person from Municipal Court was assigned to the last session of the treatment court, formally known as Missoula Co-Occurring Treatment Court.
Among other issues, Jenks said, the city just doesn’t have the resources to devote that much time and money to one person.
“It’s like the Cadillac” of court systems, she said, lauding the goals of treatment courts. “But I don’t know that we can right now, given our volume, afford the Cadillac.”
Treatment courts are aimed at nonviolent offenders who end up in trouble with the law largely because of their addictions or mental health problems. Typically, participants agree to a treatment plan that, if followed successfully, can result in a reduced sentence, or even a deferred sentence that could eventually see their record wiped clean.
In addition to the Co-Occurring Court, Missoula County also has a treatment court specifically designed for veterans, and a Youth Drug Court that serves Missoula and Mineral counties. There are various DUI and drug treatment courts around Montana, including tribal courts.
Roughly 120 people have completed Co-Occurring Court and Veterans Court programs in Missoula County since 2004, said county Standing Master Brenda Desmond, who launched what was then known as Mental Health Court. About one-third of those were referred from Municipal Court, she said.
A 2011 report from the Montana Supreme Court Office of Court Administrator showed lower relapse and recidivism rates for drug court participants.
“I understand and believe really strongly that the treatment courts can be really positive and are just a wonderful idea if you’re able to do them,” said Jenks, named in November to replace Judge Donald Louden after he retired in midterm.
Problem is, said Jenks, the lengthy treatment process often is impractical for people in Municipal Court, which handles misdemeanor charges with a maximum jail sentence of six months.
The 2011 Supreme Court study, titled “Montana Drug Courts: A Snapshot of Success and Hope,” noted that a minimum of three to six months’ participation is necessary for the program to be successful
“By the time you do a screening process and the recommendations and everything, you don’t give treatment court much time to work,” Jenks said.
Treatment courts typically require intensive supervision and weekly court appearances to make sure participants are keeping on track.
“It’s a fairly significant drain on resources,” Jenks said. “There’s administrative issues and judge time, and it serves a very small group of people.”
Jenks said that she and Municipal Court Judge Marie Andersen each can see as many as 50 people per day. Even to take Andersen out of the mix for just one day a month to serve in treatment court, as had been the practice, strained an already overworked system, she said.
Jenks said she also had concerns about documenting the records of Municipal Court offenders referred to treatment courts.
Desmond, who also heads the county Veterans Court that started last year, said Friday that she and Jenks reviewed all those concerns at a meeting in August.
“I am fully confident that the Missoula Co-Occurring and Veterans courts and the Municipal Court will come to an understanding of how we can renew our collaboration for the benefit of those who are eligible for our program,” Desmond said.
A proposed memorandum of understanding that addresses the issues will be submitted to Jenks, she said.
“Numerous Missoula citizens and our community have benefited from the excellent working relationship we have had with Municipal Court since 2004,” Desmond said. “I am certain that relationship will continue for the benefit of future persons who will be eligible for the program.”
Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, email@example.com or @CopsAndCourts.