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New Lake County recovery courts target addiction

The Sixth Judicial District will introduce substance use recovery courts later this year in Lake County. The courts will offer an alternative to incarceration for substance-addicted individuals. (News-Chronicle file photo)

Law enforcement and judicial officials in Lake County will soon have a new tool to deal with individuals charged with addiction-related crimes.

In September, substance use recovery courts will be introduced in Lake County and will give court officials an alternative to incarceration for nonviolent, substance-addicted individuals. The courts are similar to drug courts, which are judicially-supervised court dockets attempting to strike a balance between the need to protect community safety and improve public help. Recovery courts also encompass individuals who convicted of alcohol-related crimes and are a better fit for lower population areas like Lake County, said Sixth Judicial District Judge Michael Cuzzo.

According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP), one in 100 U.S. citizens are currently in jail or prison, and nearly 50 percent of those people are "clinically addicted" to drugs or alcohol.

"Drug courts are an alternative to incarceration for people with substance use or mental health disorders," NADCP Communications Director Chris Deutsch said. "The idea being that we know that punishment alone simply doesn't change the behavior. If someone has an addiction, they need treatment. Drug courts are meant to keep people accountable but also give them the treatment they need. What we know now after 30 years of drug courts that this is a much more effective way to do business."

Drug courts first appeared in 1989 in the U.S. as a response to the crack cocaine epidemic in Miami that ravaged the area. Courts started guiding offenders toward long term treatment programs and in doing so they learned something.

"You can actually save money and save lives by connecting people to treatment, supervising them closely and keeping them in treatment long enough to be successful," Deutsch said.

According to statistics compiled to evaluate drug and recovery courts in Minnesota in 2012, participants have about half the reconviction rate, 17 percent, of those who go through the traditional court system over a period of 30 months. What's more, the drug court cohort costs about 30 percent less per participant than incarceration.

Lake County is one of just a handful of counties in Minnesota that has not yet introduced a recovery court, but it's been on Cuzzo's agenda since before he was elected in 2010. Lake and Cook counties, which make up the Sixth District, were part of some pilot programs for the state early on in Cuzzo's tenure. He was hesitant to add recovery courts to the district before the other programs were operational.

Drug courts have also shown particular effectiveness in treating methamphetamine addiction, something of particular concern in Lake County. The Lake County Attorney's Office prosecuted more meth cases in 2017 than in the previous two years combined. There were more meth-related arrests in 2017 than all other substances combined, including cocaine, heroin and marijuana.

The key, according to Deutsch, is the comprehensive nature of the program and the amount of time recovery courts require participants to remain in treatment.

"Something like meth is such a destructive drug that typically those that have been using it for a long time have serious physical issues, they have no employment, they've lost their housing and their families have given up on them," Deutsch said. "The reason drug courts are so effective with meth is that it not only handles the need for treatment, but they bring in support for housing, repair of family relationships, and the program is long enough — usually 12 months and often a year and half to two years — and sometimes that's the time it takes to repair your life when you've been addicted for a long time."

According to NADCP, drug court was the most effective treatment for meth among eight programs as measured by drug screenings. Abuse of meth was reduced by more than 50 percent with drug courts as opposed to outpatient treatment alone.

Cuzzo's goal for the program in Lake County is to "turn lives around" and give people the support they need to make the long-term changes that aid in addiction recovery. He said treatment graduations as one of the best parts about his job.

"In that courtroom over there, we do a lot of things that aren't a lot of fun — you see a lot of tragedy," Cuzzo said. "There are a few things that are really tremendous things we get to do in court. Every once in a while, I get to do a wedding, I get to do an adoption every once in a while, but one of the best things I get to is participate in graduation from treatment court.

"To graduate somebody out of our program, because they have been successful and have truly turned things around, is absolutely one of the best things I get to do as a judge," he said.

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5 facts about drug court participants

• The unemployment rate for participants who graduated from a drug court program dropped from about 50 percent at entry to less than 15 percent at graduation.

• Twenty percent of graduates raised their highest educational attainment during their time in the drug court program.

• Almost three-fourths of graduates who were not compliant with their obligation to pay child support at the beginning of drug court participation were compliant upon completion.

• Drug court participants are less likely to reoffend.

• Participants spent less time incarcerated, thereby reducing costs to taxpayers.

Source: 2012 Minnesota State Drug Court Evaluation

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb has been a reporter for the Pine Journal since October 2018. He previously worked as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle from 2015-2018. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. 

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