Study shows lasting impact of Minnesota’s drug court

WORTHINGTON -- A follow-up study released this week shows significantly lower recidivism rates and reduced incarceration costs due to the success of drug court.

WORTHINGTON - A follow-up study released this week shows significantly lower recidivism rates and reduced incarceration costs due to the success of drug court. 

In 2012, the Minnesota Judicial Branch released the first comprehensive evaluation of the effectiveness of Minnesota’s drug courts.
The study, which compared 535 drug court participants to similar offenders who experienced traditional court processes over two and a half years, found drug courts significantly reduced recidivism, improved community outcomes, and reduced incarceration and related costs for drug court participants.
On Monday, the Minnesota Judicial Branch released a follow-up to that 2012 evaluation, which tracked the progress of the same drug court participants and similar offenders over an additional year and a half. The new evaluation found that drug court participants - now four years removed from their entry into a drug court program - continued to show significantly lower recidivism rates and reduced incarceration costs.
Drug courts are specialized, problem-solving court programs that target non-violent criminal offenders who suffer from addiction to alcohol or other drugs. The programs involve close collaboration between judges, prosecutors, defense counsel, treatment providers, probation officers, educational and vocational experts, law enforcement and community leaders.

Through this collaboration, drug courts closely monitor a defendant’s progress toward sobriety and recovery through ongoing treatment, frequent drug testing and regular mandatory check-in court appearances.
“When we first saw the results of our 2012 drug court evaluation, we were thrilled to see the real impact that Minnesota’s drug courts were having on some of the most high-risk drug offenders in the state,” said Sixth Judicial District Chief Judge Shaun Floerke, co-chair of the Drug Court Initiative Advisory Committee. “At that time, we decided that we also needed to continue monitoring the progress of these drug court participants, to learn whether these improved outcomes were sustainable in the long-term.
“Thanks to this new evaluation, we are now able to see the long-lasting impact drug courts have on the lives of participants, and the real benefits drug courts provide to our communities.”
Comparing offenders who spent similar amounts of time outside of incarceration (at-risk time) during the evaluation period, the new study shows drug court participants consistently had significantly lower recidivism rates. For example, among those offenders who reached four years of “at-risk time” during the evaluation, 28 percent of drug court participants had received a new conviction, compared to 41 percent of non-drug court participants.
In Nobles County, the drug court program is entering into its fourth year of operation. During that time, it has had 15 people graduate from the Rock/Nobles/Cottonwood County drug court program.
Locally, zero recidivism rate
Nobles County will release its own evaluation study that will be published in August. So far, those who have participated in drug court have been very successful.
“Luckily, we’ve had a zero recidivism rate,” said Sherri Smith, who works for the Minnesota Cornerstone Drug Court. “Our first graduate graduated in December 2013. So, we’ve had someone out a year, but we don’t have 10 years after graduation to see where those graduates are.”
Smith said there are some ways to tell whether or not the state, and ultimately taxpayers, are saving money by people participating in drug court.
“It’s hard to measure exactly where your savings are, but of the graduates that we’ve had in Nobles County, about six of them had child protection cases,” Smith said. “So that means children were in foster care, but (we) had an opportunity to reunite families sooner and permanently, which saves the county funds out of the home-placement costs. That is a huge chunk of the social services budget.”
Smith also noted that all of the graduates have obtained their GED - a requirement of drug court - are employed, paying rent or house payments, paying taxes and are contributing members of society.
“I still keep in contact with all of the graduates, because we have a drug court alumni group who are very active in coordinating activities on their own,” Smith said. “They do a lot of fundraising events because the alumni are mentors to the current participants so they hold several recovery events. … All the drug court participants get together, and you really can have fun in recovery.”
The study also showed that drug court participants spent, on average, 74 fewer days incarcerated in jail or prison compared to similar offenders during the four-year evaluation period. The average cost savings for each drug court participant was $4,288 as a result of this reduced incarceration.
While the savings benefit taxpayers and the state, Smith said, in her opinion, you can’t put a monetary value on drug court.
“I’m very passionate about drug court, and you can’t put a monetary value on the good that it does for those that are successful,” Smith said. “To see parents crying at graduation because they finally have their child back again - you can’t measure (that) by putting a dollar amount on it.”
Smith said drug court can be a successful alternative to just sending a person to prison.
“I don’t think people in society understand that the default to lock them up and throw them in prison is, in reality, not where people are going anyway,” Smith said. “In order to be sent to prison, you have to have a significant criminal history. … Just because someone breaks the law doesn’t mean they are going to prison.”
Drug court is made possible through grants and state appropriations. However, the grant money will run out, Smith said, and she encourages people to contact their legislators about this issue.
South Dakota is making positive changes as taxpayers see the benefits of the program, Smith said.
“They are increasing their drug court program. … They’re understanding the cost benefit,” Smith said. “For Minnesota, I’m hoping people see the importance of funding the drug courts.
“Ultimately, the money comes out of their pockets when sending someone to prison. Let’s push something that gives them some return on their investments.”
Drug court hearings are open to the public and take place every other Wednesday at Prairie Justice Center. For more information on the Nobles/Rock/Cottonwood County drug court, contact Smith at (507) 220-5537.

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