Positive attitudes, strong commitments boost new regional drug courtWORTHINGTON — The atmosphere in a courtroom can be tense, with people sitting restlessly beside their attorneys while families of defendants or victims wait anxiously in the gallery. But in a courtroom at the Prairie Justice Center Wednesday, the laid-back feel was apparent as the judge chatted with defendants, attorneys joked and applause rang out.
WORTHINGTON — The atmosphere in a courtroom can be tense, with people sitting restlessly beside their attorneys while families of defendants or victims wait anxiously in the gallery.
But in a courtroom at the Prairie Justice Center Wednesday, the laid-back feel was apparent as the judge chatted with defendants, attorneys joked and applause rang out.
No, it wasn’t a civil ceremony or an adoption. It was drug court.
Rock and Nobles counties’ Minnesota Cornerstone Drug Court (MCDC) is relatively new, but has been discussed for quite some time. Judge Timothy Connell, now retired, has pushed for it for years. Even though he retired several months ago, he’s sticking with the program for now. The continuing consistency needed for the task is important, he feels, to get the project off to a good start.
Connell got involved in the formation of a drug court in southwest Minnesota after seeing success stories in other districts and other parts of this district.
The Minnesota Judicial Council unanimously approved the implementation of a Cottonwood-Murray-Nobles-Pipestone-Rock Drug Court in November 2011, with a targeted capacity of 20 adults. Rock and Nobles counties are currently participating, and the other counties will be added as things get up and running.
On Wednesday, the Drug Court team — made up of the judge, prosecuting and defense attorneys, law enforcement officers, jailers, counselors and probation officers — met to discuss each and every participant individually, talking about their progress, setbacks, needs and milestones.
Then came the court appearances. The participants gathered in the courtroom, along with the team, and one by one each came forward to speak to the judge.
Each participant was greeted with an announcement of how many days they had been sober, and each announcement was punctuated by applause. Twenty-nine days sober, 86 days, 100 days. One participant had 277 days of sobriety under her belt.
Connell greeted each person by name, and asked how they were doing. He told them what the team had discussed before court, letting them know about concerns the team might have. He encouraged them to ask questions, to keep trying, and to stick with the guidelines of the program. Team members asked questions about each person’s progress. Had they found a sponsor? How was a job going? Is their family doing well?
The mood in the courtroom was one of encouragement, concern and even laughter.
For one participant, it was his first drug court appearance.
“I’ll be your judge throughout the whole thing,” Connell explained. “You might not know me, I’m Judge Timothy Connell, like it says on the nameplate.”
He gestured toward a sign on the front of the bench, then stopped as Nobles County Assistant Attorney Travis Smith started to shake his head and laugh.
“I’m not?” Connell asked.
“The name is wrong,” Smith said as others in the room laughed. “The wrong nameplate is there.”
When one participant was reminded of an upcoming appointment, he admitted he didn’t know where he was supposed to go. Immediately several other participants seated in the gallery volunteered their assistance, and anyone watching could see the camaraderie building between the people who are battling addiction together.
Not mentioning specifics, Connell told each participant he had been reading their journals, and answered any questions or concerns they had written. Each person is given two journals and asked to record their feelings, concerns or whatever they want to write about. At each drug court session, Connell swaps journals, keeping the most recent and returning the one they had turned in previously. He writes in each one, replying to their entry.
“I really enjoy your journals,” Connell told the participants, adding little comments that showed he was familiar with the contents of each journal and the struggles each participant was facing.
Throughout the session, Connell would frequently offer advice to the person he was speaking to, and include the rest of the participants in his words. One was ticketed for having no proof of insurance, prompting the judge to remind them that law enforcement officials in the area are familiar with them.
“None of you are new to the system, and the police know who you are,” he stated. “The reality of that isn’t that they are after you, just that they have information about you.”
The participants had spent years working themselves into their situation, he reminded them, and their reputations would not be remedied in mere days.
Some of the participants chatted easily with the judge and the team members, answering questions and talking about their progress with little hesitation. Others were more reticent, but each seemed to be at least somewhat comfortable with the situation.
One man mentioned he was working toward getting his driver’s license back, and the judge responded immediately.
“We were extremely happy you took the steps to find out what you needed to do,” he stated. “TD (Hostikka, counselor) is going to talk to you about that and help you formulate a plan.”
One man mentioned a visit from a “user friend” — a battle each person faces as they work to gain their sobriety. Another talked about getting visitation rights with his children.
The drug team listened to each problem that had come up in the participants’ lives and offered advice — not handing them solutions, but sharing avenues the participant could investigate.
Connell reminded the participants of their part of the drug court deal — they would be subject to random testing and a 10 p.m. curfew, and would be checked on at least twice a week. He stated it wasn’t a punishment, but an incentive to stay clean and sober.
In Minnesota in 2002, there were two drug courts; there are now 39 operational drug courts. Nationally, drug courts have shown to reduce drug use and recidivism by more than 35 percent. A $350,000 grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance will fund the local drug court for three years.
Daily Globe Reporter Justine Wettschreck may be reached at 376-7322.