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Treatment court graduation

District Court Judge Mary Jane Knisely presents speaks to veterans treatment court graduates Tuesday. From left, they are: West Ironshell, Warren Toebe, Chad Black, James Howe and James Colderhead.

The noon June sun shone down Tuesday on the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn festooned with balloons and a party tent where about 100 people gathered to celebrate sobriety. One women and nine men were honored for completing treatment court programs they had worked through after being convicted of offenses ranging from misdemeanor DUI to negligent homicide.

Five graduated from the impaired driving court that offers people whose offense involved intoxicated driving the opportunity to recover from their addiction. Five graduated from the program that serves veterans whose criminal offenses are related to mental illness or addiction.

"DUI courts reduce the rate of repeat DUI offenses, protect public safety and reduce costs," according to the most recent STEER Court evaluation. The Yellowstone County DUI court graduation rate of 68% exceeds the national average for DUI courts.

A key factor in that success is quick entry into chemical dependency treatment. As of last year, 79% of Yellowstone County court participants started treatment the day they entered the court program and 95 percent were in substance abuse treatment within seven days. On average, each participant had 488 hours of treatment before completing the program.

Judge Mary Jane Knisely started STEER (Sobriety, Treatment, Education, Excellence and Rehabilitation) Court in early 2010 when she first became a District Court judge. In its first eight years, STEER court served 267 people. Primary funding is provided through traffic safety grants. 

In traditional court, about 35% of DUI offenders will get another DUI, but only 8% of Yellowstone County STEER graduates had been arrested again for DUI within three years of graduation, according to an independent evaluation.

Knisely first convened the CAMO (Courts Assisting Military Offenders) treatment court in 2011. It served 118 people in its first seven years. On average, CAMO court participants received 336 hours of treatment and needed 18 months to complete the program. Like the STEER participants, the veterans are subject to drug testing twice weekly.

"Veterans court participants report improvements in mental health status, substance abuse, overall well being, social connectedness, family functioning and sleep," according to its latest independent evaluation. The evaluation determined that 10 percent of graduates had a new arrest in the three years after participating in the program.

Knisely leads the treatment teams that include professionals in probation/parole, law enforcement, criminal prosecution and defense and health care. The VA and volunteer veteran mentors are part of the veterans court team. 

These two treatment courts will have greater capacity for the next five years, thanks to a federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grant award that totals nearly $2 million and started May 31. 

"There's a huge need," Knisely told The Gazette last week.

The courts are busy. Last week, the DUI court had 78 participants and screened 19 more who are on a waiting list. The veterans court had 41 participants, inducted two last week and still had five waiting.

Although these courts operate in Yellowstone County, they have served offenders from other jurisdictions. Two of last week's graduates were referred by Gallatin County courts. A recent agreement with federal probation and the U.S. Attorney's Office has made the treatment program available to federal offenders.

The grant will help expand teleconferencing so that participants in Indian reservation communities and other distant locations can participate in court and in treatment with less need for travel. The court also has telemedicine capabilities for veterans to receive VA care.

Rimrock provides the chemical dependency treatment, including medication-assisted treatment that has been shown most effective for opioid addictions. Alcohol is most frequently the primary drug abused by court participants, with meth a close second, Knisely said, but opioids abuse is increasing. The medications used to help opioid abusers are being tested for effectiveness on meth addictions.

Many participants first arrive at court jobless, homeless and hungry. All graduates have jobs or are in school full time, Knisely said.

Part of treatment court is giving back to their community. Each participant is required to develop and get court approval for a 30-hour volunteer project. Veterans and DUI court participants have assisted many nonprofit and charitable organizations and some have then been hired by the agencies where they had volunteered.

"They give back and they get a lot out of it," Knisely said.

Yellowstone County courts are the busiest in the state, but Knisely and other local judges still commit to specialty treatment courts because they know that the traditional crime, punishment and probation system doesn't work for many people; they get into trouble again and again. Treatment court graduates are more likely to continue as productive, law abiding citizens. According to national statistics, every $1 invested in DUI courts saves more than $3.

With a return like that, treatment courts are essential parts of a justice system struggling with limited resources in Yellowstone County and the state of Montana.

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