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Regional drug court proposal awarded $350,000

WORTHINGTON -- The 15-county Fifth Judicial District in southwest Minnesota has been awarded a $350,000 grant over the course of the next three years to establish a drug court in Nobles, Rock, Cottonwood, Pipestone and Murray counties. These are the only counties in the district not yet served by a drug court.

On Tuesday, members of the drug court planning team presented information to the Nobles County Board of Commissioners in hopes of moving forward with the creation of a specialized program to deal with people addicted to drugs or alcohol, and who are involved in criminal behavior.

"There is not a problem-solving court in this area," said Nobles County Attorney Gordon Moore.

He said if the county moved forward with the drug court model, offenders would participate in a 12- to 18-month program with intensive supervision, meeting every week or every other week with people from law enforcement, community corrections or the judicial system.

"The idea is a team approach is required to deal with some of these people who are repeat customers," Moore said. "They know they have benchmarks to make. Rewards are given for clean tests and good behavior and sanctions for those unable to do that. The goal is to save money."

Studies show 90 percent of offenders who complete a treatment-only program drop out in 12 months and most do not remain abstinent, whereas 68 percent of those who choose prison will be arrested for new crimes and 95 percent will relapse to substance abuse in three years. Drug court combines punishment and rehabilitation in hopes of finding a more successful outcome.

"We need to punish the offenders we are afraid of and treat the offenders we are mad at," Moore told county commissioners. Offenders who are likely candidates for drug court are those who allegedly neglect their kids, drive drunk and commit crimes because of their addictions to drugs or alcohol.

While drug court has been discussed extensively in the past, the plan in the Fifth Judicial District was to wait for implementation in this five county area until new judges were seated. Judge Connell is retiring Oct. 11, while Judge Jeffery Flynn's retirement takes effect Jan. 27 and Judge David Gross' retirement is planned for Aug. 1, 2012.

Connell completed the drug court training in May, and has agreed to devote time to the program as a senior retired judge beginning in November. Moore said if the county accepts the three-year grant, a full-time coordinator would need to be hired.

Moving forward with the drug court program has its own sets of challenges and opportunities, Moore said, citing the judicial retirements, retirements in court administration and changes in the Rock-Nobles Community Corrections office among the challenges, in addition to language barriers.

Still, he sees a lot of potential in the program as well, from having a team of people motivated to see the drug court concept succeed to securing funding for three years and having case numbers to make it work.

"These are people we will be dealing with anyway," Moore said.

Already in 2011, Nobles County has had 37 drug-related prosecutions, ranging from first- to fifth-degree and meth crimes involving children. There were 38 drug prosecutions in 2010, and 61 in 2009 -- the highest in the six-year period.

Moore estimates there could be six plausible drug cases per year in Nobles County that could go through drug court rather than the jail system. Crimes included in that count are drug possession to felony driving while impaired charges and drug-related activity such as check forgeries or issuance of dishonored checks.

He said a great cost-savings could be realized in regard to out-of-home placements of children -- those removed from homes where drugs are present. So far this year, 45 children have been removed from homes, with more than 5,600 days of children in various types of placement.

"If we could prevent one of these cases, that would have a significant effect on our costs," Moore added.

Nobles County Commissioner Marv Zylstra asked what would happen after the three-year grant ran out.

"If things go as planned, the county board will be able to look at the data and make a decision if this is something worth continuing to do," Moore responded. "If it's deemed not to be successful after three years, then we'll need to have discussions. I don't see any downside to this right now. What they're mainly asking for is a commitment of staff time."

Flynn encouraged the county to at least give the drug court concept a try.

"If this doesn't work, then we're back to where we are now and no one is happy about where we are now," said Flynn. "I've seen hundreds of people over the years who come in the court because they are addicted to meth. The prospect of going to jail doesn't seem to deter them because they don't expect that they're going to be apprehended or caught.

"If this falls on its face -- and it might -- nothing ventured, nothing gained," he added. "I think residents of the county can save a lot of money, even if less than half of them are successful and able to keep sober."

A memorandum of understanding was presented to Nobles County for authorization, however no decision was made Tuesday.

Until the counties agree to the concept, the $350,000 grant will not be accepted, even though the grant was to take effect Oct. 1.

Also speaking in support of the drug court concept Tuesday were Nicole Names, Nobles County Family Services director; Jon Ramlo, Rock-Nobles Community Corrections director; and Kent Wilkening, Nobles County Sheriff.

Julie Buntjer
Julie Buntjer joined the Daily Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington and graduate of Worthington High School, then-Worthington Community College and South Dakota State University, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. At the Daily Globe, Julie covers the agricultural beat, as well as Nobles County government, watersheds, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework (cross-stitch and hardanger embroidery), reading, travel, fishing and spending time with family. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at www.farmbleat.areavoices.com.
(507) 376-7330
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