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Drug court grad dad

Drug Court graduate Jason Santiago feeds 7-week-old Samuel before the start of a graduation ceremony on Oct. 18.

Billings Municipal Drug Treatment Court helped Jason Santiago give his newborn son a life that his other kids didn’t have as babies.

“This is my first child that I’ve had sober, so he has a sober dad,” Santiago explained while cradling his son before the start of his recent court graduation. A big guy with tattoos and closely-cropped dark hair, Santiago brought the whole family to celebrate his accomplishments: Sober for 15 months and working full-time to support his family.

The key, Santiago said, is “learning to respect myself more, to have empathy for people more.” Treatment court is different than the other programs he had tried and failed.

Randi Felton, long-time treatment court coordinator, summarized the program’s mission: “provide intense supervision, demand accountability, improve public safety, all the while changing participant’s thinking and behavior through individualized, long-term treatment.”

Santiago was one of six graduates that day, they are among the last to complete the drug treatment court that Mary Jane Knisely established in 2005 when she was municipal judge. Sheila Kolar succeeded Knisely and sustained the drug court, along with another program dedicated to DUI offender rehabilitation and a third program for offenders who have issues with both serious mental illnesses and substance abuse.

The original Billings drug court is the only treatment court in Montana that lost state funding this year. Legislators decided that municipal drug courts should find their own money.

The state isn’t “saving” money by stopping support for a program that has demonstrated its cost-effectiveness for more than a decade. The Municipal Court has jurisdiction over misdemeanor offenses, so its treatment programs have the ability to intervene before addicts move onto more serious crimes. Kolar said the Municipal Drug Treatment Court also accepted felony referrals from District Court.

Two of the men graduating with Santiago are on Department of Corrections supervised probation. The municipal court program vastly reduced the risk they will re-offend and end up in state prison. Most participants were unemployed when they started the program, all must be working or going to school full time before they graduate.

When Kolar presented Santiago with his graduation certificate, he teared up, saying: “I have a new son born into my life that’s going to know a sober dad and I owe that to all you guys. Thank you.”

Last week, the Billings Municipal Court had 27 participants in DUI court and seven in the intensive mental health court. Each of those programs is supposed to be limited to 20 people and each is running on federal grants.

The drug court, which used to serve 50 participants at a time is now down to 13. Last year, it operated with an $87,000 state grant. All three court programs charge participants $30 a week to defray part of the costs of treating their addictions and monitoring their progress.

With limited capacity, the treatment courts can serve only a small fraction of offenders whose behavior problems are rooted in chemical dependencies or mental illnesses. Research shows that treatment courts deliver the greatest value for dollars spent by taking the toughest cases — those who are likely to fail to follow traditional sentencing orders.

Kolar isn’t asking the city to replace the state funds. With the state seeking to cut its spending by many millions of dollars, and the city reluctant to take on additional costs, the Billings Municipal Drug Treatment Court is unlikely to reappear soon. That reduction in government spending isn’t good. Kolar will see the consequences when chemically dependent offenders return for subsequent assaults and thefts. After they’ve racked up enough misdemeanors, they’ll get a felony case in District Court.

Montana’s most populous city and county lost one effective tool for stopping the revolving door of justice. The justice reforms that lawmakers supported earlier this year aren’t going to work, unless there’s sufficient resources for stopping the cycle of substance abuse and recidivism. Treatment courts are one proven way to reach that goal.