Drug Court: Intense and focused

Multi-faceted program aims to start and keep addicts on a road to recovery

By Terry Lehrke, News Editor

The Morrison County Drug Court team is compromised of professionals from various offices in the county. Members include front row (from left): Karin Gjerset, Drug Court coordinator; District Court Judge Conrad Freeberg; and Morrison County Attorney Brian Middendorf. Back row: Rachel Barta of Social Services; Nicole Kern with community corrections; Morrison County Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Worlie; Mary Arsenault with community corrections and Paul Bukovich, Morrison County Social Services. Not pictured is public defender, Rob O’Malley.

The Morrison County Drug Court team is comprised of professionals from various offices in the county. Members include front row (from left): Karin Gjerset, Drug Court coordinator; District Court Judge Conrad Freeberg; and Morrison County Attorney Brian Middendorf. Back row: Rachel Barta of Social Services; Nicole Kern with community corrections; Morrison County Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Worlie; Mary Arsenault with community corrections and Paul Bukovich, Morrison County Social Services. Not pictured is public defender, Rob O’Malley.

A program that targets addicts’ needs to help them become sober and yet will hold them accountable for their actions, is set to become a part of the Morrison County court system in July.

The “Drug Court” is run by a team made up of county prosecuting and defense attorneys, corrections, probation, law enforcement and Social Services professionals and a district court judge.

The team has been working for months to put together the program that Paul Bukovich of Social Services said has earned the catch phrase, “Not soft on crime; smart on crime.”

The program is targeted to drug or alcohol addicts (clients) in the court system who are most likely to re-offend. It is not targeted to those involved in violent crime.

The Drug Court team will determine who would most benefit from the process.

Rachel Barta of Social Services said a complete comprehensive assessment will be done on multiple levels to determine exactly what type of services each individual (client) requires.

The program is designed to work in phases on the barriers and struggles clients face in beating their addiction and to find help to get through those challenges. The ultimate goal is to beat the addiction or to “graduate” and become productive members of the community.

In addition to chemical dependency, some of those barriers may include housing, education, employment or even the lack of a driver’s license or state identification.

Other struggles may be psychiatric, physical, medical or dental,.

“The individuals that will be eligible don’t have the skills, support or resources to be able to arrest their addiction,” said Bukovich.

Team members are involved with each client in the system on a weekly basis. The team will continue to meet to discuss each client’s progress or lack thereof, and decide the next steps to be taken.

Once the program starts, every Wednesday a client will be in court — and every Wednesday held accountable for their actions — good or bad. Sanctions or rewards are immediate.

Morrison County District Court Judge Conrad Freeberg is a member of the team and will be the judge in all of the cases. He said the Drug Court approach is very different than that of regular court.

For one, he and each member of the team will have significant knowledge of each client.

The judge likes the concept of Drug Court.

“It’s going to be different and I’m looking forward to it,” said Freeberg.

“I get frustrated by things now,” he said, recapping the amount of time it can take from when he first sees an offender until action is taken.

In one instance, he said an offender violated probation in November 2013 and in the typical court system, that person still hadn’t dealt with the violation in March 2014.

“In the meantime, they were probably using again,” said Freeberg. He said it’s not unusual for an offender to have had two or more urine analyses (UA) test positive for drugs throughout their court appearances.

“Nobody’s dealt with it, because they’ve been able to put it off,” he said.

“This way (Drug Court), with a dirty UA, the next Wednesday they’d be in court and I could say, ‘That costs you a night in jail — right now — go’ and they’d spend the night in jail. That’s the penalty, so it’s immediate, it’s not something they can put off or ignore for a length of time.”

By the same token, if the person had a good week, Freeberg could offer an immediate reward or incentive.

He likes not only that idea but the idea of getting to know people better. As a judge, he typically knows clients only as numbers, interacts only with their attorneys and only on the offense they are charged with.

In Drug Court, Freeberg would speak directly with the client, learning what they did throughout the week, what they were successful at, what they failed at and discuss why.

“All the team will get to know them better,” he said.

Although Freeberg, as the judge, will make the final decision, it will be with the input and collaboration of the team and the information provided through continual evaluation.

It is estimated that the process of an individual achieving success or “graduating” in Drug Court will take about 1 1/2 years.

During that time period, Bukovich said they will have had access to any resources for which a need was found.

The goal is that by the time a client graduates, they will not only be ready for society, “They’ll already be in society and already seeing the benefits of having things go well in their life,” said Bukovich.

Morrison County was first approved as a Drug Court site in 2008, and a number of staff went through the training. However, as the economy fell, funding also fell through and it was put on hold.

The Morrison County Board of Commissioners gave the go-ahead for the Drug Court to request grant funds in July 2013, when they again became available. Drug Court is funded through the state. The only cost to the county is a match of in-kind services.

The Morrison County Drug Court team will request about $200,000 from the state of Minnesota Drug Court Initiative Advisory Board. The team will be presenting the budget request before the Drug Court Initiative Board for approval on May 14.

The team called the Drug Court a “win-win-win situation.” Upon successful completion, the individual wins; their family wins and the community wins, they said.

The National Association of Drug Court Professionals estimates that nationwide, 75 percent of Drug Court graduates remain arrest-free at least two years after leaving the program.

It also estimates that for every $1 invested, taxpayers save as much as $3.36 in avoided criminal justice costs and as much as $27 in savings for every $1 invested from reduced victimization and health care services.

The Drug Court team in Morrison County is looking forward to its first graduation.

“That will be something,” said County Attorney Brian Middendorf.

  • central mn

    It sounds good in theory, hopefully it will work as there is a major drug problem in Morrison Co. Best of luck!!!

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