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SOAR Drug court

Montana Supreme Court Associate Justice Ingrid Gustafson addresses District Judge Jessica Fehr's courtroom as the first person enters the SOAR Drug Court on Aug 21. Fehr was appointed to replace Gustafson, who had established a drug treatment court in Yellowstone County and presided over that program until she was appointed the the Supreme Court.

The newest treatment court in Montana is taking a different approach than others, but with the same goal: Getting offenders off drugs and out of the court system for good.

Yellowstone County District Judge Jessica Fehr leads the team in the new SOAR (Seize Opportunity and Recover) Court. Like the seven other treatment courts in Yellowstone County, SOAR will hold participants accountable for completing recommended addiction treatment, and reporting weekly to Fehr in court.

SOAR is different because participation will be limited to first-time, drug-related offenders. Other treatment courts focus on high-risk, high-need offenders who are likely to re-offend in the regular court track. In Fehr's court, those first-time offenders who successfully complete the program can avoid getting a felony conviction on their record. Violent and sexual offenders won't be eligible. 

Having a felony on your record immediately limits employment and housing opportunities, and possibly even restricts your educational choices and your children's daycare options.

"Until someone has to check that box, you don't understand how often it comes up," Fehr told Gazette reporter Phoebe Tollefson.

Communicating the impact of a felony record is key to success in a pre-plea court, said Jeffrey Kushner, state drug court coordinator with the Office of Supreme Court Administrator in Helena. Before coming to Montana, Kushner worked in St. Louis, Missouri, where treatment court had a pre-conviction program, similar to Fehr's, and a post-conviction program, similar to other Montana drug courts. The biggest challenge in pre-conviction courts was getting young, first-time offenders to understand the tremendous benefit of avoiding a conviction. In post-conviction courts, older offenders often were looking at probation revocation and long prison sentences that motivated them to work for sobriety.

All treatment courts in Montana have been launched with federal grants of three to four years. Fehr's court is starting with a three-year grant. The state has stepped in to continue funding of District Court programs, but lawmakers in 2017 stopped funding the long-running and successful Billings Municipal Drug treatment court. Veterans courts get some funding from the VA, and some DUI courts are partially funded with federal highway safety grants through the Montana Department of Transportation. 

The state budget includes $1.46 million this fiscal year for drug courts statewide, including courts in Miles City, Sidney, Glasgow, Missoula, Great Falls, Butte and Bozeman.

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The judges who take on treatment courts often have to write their own grant applications. They don't get paid extra for doing the additional work of meeting weekly with treatment teams and talking individually with each participant in court. The judge holds the participants accountable for what they did or failed to do during the week. Rewards (such as small gift cards) and consequences (community service hours) are ordered. In the criminal treatment courts, repeated failures can result in jail time.

Why do busy judges take on treatment courts?

Because these intensive programs work.

According to data compiled by Kushner, the majority of Montana participants who start treatment courts complete the program. More than half of graduates don't re-offend within three years. Most people enter treatment courts homeless and jobless, while nearly all leave with housing and employment. National data indicates that every $1 invested in drug courts yields a savings of $2 to $4 in reduced costs of courts, law enforcement, incarceration, child protection services and other public programs.

At the end of April, Montana treatment courts statewide reported having 717 participants, Kushner said. In Yellowstone County alone, treatment courts were working with 205 — 29 percent of all the state's drug court participants, including:

  • 74 people in felony impaired driving court with District Judge Mary Jane Knisely.
  • 44 in veterans court with Knisely presiding.
  • 18 people in felony drug court with Judge Don Harris presiding.
  • 26 people in misdemeanor DUI court with Billings Municipal Judge Sheila Kolar.
  • 14 in intensive treatment court for those with both serious mental illness and addictions with Kolar presiding.
  • 2 in adult misdemeanor drug court (which no longer receives state or federal funds) with Kolar presiding.
  • 27 families in Family Recovery Court that handles civil child abuse and neglect cases in which parental substance abuse is a major contributing factor. Judge Greg Todd presides over this program that treats children and parents.

Among the thousands of child neglect cases and criminal cases related to alcohol and other drugs that come through Yellowstone County every year, treatment courts have the capacity to handle only a few hundred. (They also accept participants from other counties.) Taking the toughest cases in treatment courts has been shown to bring the biggest return on investment. Now the SOAR court is working to intervene earlier to prevent first-time offenders from becoming repeaters. Both types of treatment courts are valuable to combat the proliferation of meth, opioid and other substance abuse that drives up crime and child neglect in Billings and throughout Montana.

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