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'Treatment court' coming to Lake County

In Lake County, plans are underway to start a "Substance Use Recovery Court" sometime this fall (also called "drug court" and "treatment court."). According to an article I recently read, "Drug courts profoundly alter the traditional functions and adversarial nature of the U.S. criminal justice system." More importantly, these courts are a big improvement in the way we treat substance addiction.

Here is how treatment courts usually work. A prosecutor will offer an offender with little or no history of violent crime a deal. The offender can enter the program, so long as he or she pleads guilty to the drug-related charge (including DWI). The offender gives up the right to challenge the legality of the arrest and the right to a trial, and is placed on probation.

Once in the program, the offender is prohibited from using drugs and alcohol and is subjected to frequent but random urine testing (at least twice a week). The offender is required to attend drug treatment counseling and appear regularly before the drug court judge to discuss his or her performance. The program usually lasts 1.5 years or longer, after which successful participants "graduate" to regular probation. As long as they comply with the program, they stay out of jail.

The first drug court was in Miami-Dade County, Florida, in 1989. In Minnesota, the first one opened in 1996 in Hennepin County. Now, there are over 3,000 programs in every state and territory.

Numerous studies have shown that punishment simply does not solve the problem of addiction; in fact, 70 percent of those released from prison return to drug use. According to Wikipedia, "the punitive approach has produced disastrous societal and economic consequences for our communities, resulting in 1.5 million seriously addicted people behind bars and more than $80 billion spent annually on corrections."

Treatment courts have been remarkably successful. Over half of participants (54 percent) who start the program graduate. Participants spend half as much time in prison, resulting in huge cost savings. Even better, the unemployment rate for participants who graduated dropped from about 50 percent at entry to less than 15 percent at graduation. Almost three-fourths of graduates who were not compliant with their obligation to pay child support at the beginning of drug court were compliant upon completion. And drug court participants are less likely to re-offend.

Dan Lew, the chief public defender for our district, said: "It saves jail days, it saves lives, it saves families and it promotes public safety. Folks who work in the criminal justice system tell us that days in drug court are the best days of their work week."

A significant key to the success of treatment courts appears to be the ongoing involvement of the judge. He or she is the leader of a team that includes the prosecutor, defense attorney, probation officer, and drug treatment personnel.

The judge is the ultimate arbiter of treatment and punishment decisions and holds a range of discretion that has been called "unprecedented in the courtroom," including the type of treatment required, whether medically assisted treatment (such as methadone) is acceptable, and how to address relapse.

Judge Michael Cuzzo has been working with all of these professionals, including Agate Bay Professional Chemical Health Services of Two Harbors, in planning for a Lake County Substance Use Recovery Court. He told me that "community support is an important part of it." The team is starting monthly meetings in March, and training will start in September.

The National Association of Drug Court Professionals says that drug courts serve only a fraction of the estimated 1.2 million drug and alcohol addicted people currently involved in the justice system. To truly break the cycle of drugs and crime in America, we must put a treatment court within reach of every American in need.