Editor’s note: The writer is the spouse of the Beadle County Drug Court Coordinator
HURON — Since the first Drug Court began in Florida 30 years ago, the emphasis has always been treating the addiction of the participant as opposed to incarceration.
May is National Drug Court Month, and this is the second in a series about the growing phenomenon that is Drug Court. This time, we look at the people who make up the Drug Court team - specifically, the Beadle County Drug Court (BCDC) team - and pay a visit to one of the weekly Drug Court sessions.
Drug Court in South Dakota falls under the umbrella of the Unified Judicial System’s (UJS) Problem Solving courts. There are a total of 18 Problem Solving courts in South Dakota, 10 of which are Drug Courts. There are Drug Courts - the first one in Sturgis - in Rapid City, Pierre, Aberdeen, Watertown, Brookings, Sioux Falls, Yankton, Mitchell and Huron. Other Problem Solving courts are DUI Court, Mental Health Court and Veteran’s Court. Brookings and Huron are the two most recent Drug Court additions to the list.
As discussed in the History of Drug Court (Huron Plainsman, May 8) the objective of Drug Court is to utilize the structure of the state’s court system while seeking to treat the addiction rather than incarcerate.
The basis for its existence is broad. It costs the state less money to treat participants through the program’s five phases than it does to incarcerate that same individual.
The participants – non-violent drug offenders who have been sentenced to prison - apply for admittance into drug court. Their prison sentence is suspended when they are admitted into the program, based on successful completion of drug court. If for any reason, they are removed from the program, they go before the original sentencing judge, for possible - and probable - imposition of sentence.
Drug Court places the narrative of addiction recovery within the framework of the court system. Participants are required to attend weekly court sessions when they begin and as they move through the program those requirements are loosened.
As Drug Court is an actual court, it is not surprising that the person that leads the group is a judge. In Beadle County, that is Magistrate Judge Patrick McCann.
“I have served as the judge in Beadle County for approximately a year and a half,” McCann said. “I previously served as a judge on the Brookings County Drug Court, as the prosecutor on the Codington County Drug Court, and as the prosecutor on the Codington County Veterans Treatment Court. All together I have been involved with specialty courts since somewhere in 2014 when we opened the state’s first veteran’s court in Codington County.”
McCann presides over the weekly drug court, which takes place after the Drug Court Team holds its Staffing meeting. The team members discuss the participants, through each team members’ prism.
Jason Babl is the Court Services Officer (CSO) for BCDC. Along with Beadle County Sheriff Doug Solem and Casey Spinsby from the Huron Police Department, they make up the law enforcement arm of Drug Court. As the CSO, Babl keeps tabs on the participants, visiting their homes and checking with employers, information he relays to other team members, so everyone is on the same page with each participants.
“On a daily basis I am updated with clients who are struggling with compliance with our rules,” McCann noted. “Our Court Services Officer does all of the monitoring and usually contacts me when somebody has been detained and he needs further approval to keep them in custody. My duties include being the leader of the team and ensuring fidelity to the drug court model. My most important duty is to have quality interactions with our participants. I am the ultimate decider on incentives, sanctions, and termination. I do not get to delegate that authority or to simply rely on majority opinion. That duty often can force difficult decisions, particularly when it means time to decide whether or not a participant remains in our program.”
In addition to home and work visits, all participants meet with Babl on a weekly basis. His office is the same building that houses the Sheriff’s department, so Solem is able to maintain a conversation with the participants as well.’
“I believe that the more interaction that I have with them, the more trust they put in me as a team member.” Solem said. “This then helps the participant become more trustworthy in the program. The team is there to help them be successful.”
Kimberly Zachrison from the Beadle County State’s Attorney’s office is the BCDC link to the prosecutor’s office, while Aaron Pilcher is the Drug Court Defense Attorney. They are the legal team, making sure that the interests of the state as well as those of the participants are covered.
Just as there is a law enforcement arm, there is a treatment segment to the team. In Beadle County, the treatment team representatives include Gary Reff and Tammy Dramstad of Community Counseling Services. Just as participants are required to visit with Babl at least weekly to begin, they are also required to meet with someone from the treatment.
Participants are encouraged to attend support meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous or other positive group events, such as church.
The final member of the BCDC is Joan Nettinga, the Drug Court Coordinator. She is program administrator and as such is the point of contact for the program and the community.
“I maintain the records and statistics for the program and prepare the supporting paperwork, from agendas to program materials to informational documents – anything that helps support the Team in doing their job,” she said. “Along with that is the other main area of my responsibility, which is to be an expert on Drug Court Best Practices.”
Nettinga pointed out that Drug Courts rely on decades of research into what effectively aids people in beating addiction.
“That research becomes our guiding principles, or Best Practices. We are constantly referring to them for guidance; Best Practices help us make educated and objective decisions as we work on case plans for the participants,” she said. “It’s an integral part of the program and all team members receive on-going training on the latest evidence-based practices. As the Coordinator, I need to be mindful of our adherence to Best Practices.”
Court is in session
Each Wednesday at 2 p.m., Drug Court commences, in a courtroom on the third floor of the Beadle County Courthouse. It is a court proceeding and is open to the public, but the atmosphere is more relaxed than criminal court.
Participants announce they number of sober days as they make their way to a table in front of the judge. Each revelation of days - be it 25 days or more than 400 - is greeted with applause from the small number of observers, the Drug Court team members in attendance and the judge. Most noticeable, however, is the difference in atmosphere in the courtroom.
Instead of one person doing most of the speaking, Drug Court is marked by conversations between participants and McCann, where the time frame since their last visit is covered, the judge notes any problem areas and discussion on the upcoming week is taken up. The overarching feeling from McCann is upbeat, positive support of each participant.
“The majority of my interaction with clients is reserved to drug court sessions,” he agreed. “I use that time to evaluate their progress in the program and impress upon them my perceptions and the team’s goals for them. Primarily I try to reinforce positive behavior by praise and incentivization. Secondarily, I attempt to deter poor behavior by sanctions.”
Going above and beyond what is expected may lead to a special incentive for the participant, such as a gift card to a local business.
“Incentives are an important program tool that the Judge uses to encourage progress or positive behavior,” Nettinga said. “Throughout their time in the program, successful participants will achieve many milestones. In early phases, it may be getting to an appointment on time or completing a job application.”
As the participants move through the different phases milestones may be things like paying on court fines, getting their GED, securing employment, or amassing days of sobriety. Those are all positive behaviors that are rewarded in various ways, and said that part of her job is to keep the Judge’s incentive toolbox stocked. “Since state funds are not used for incentives, we rely on support from the United Way - Heartland Region; donations from churches, service clubs and individuals in the community, as well as donations from local businesses,” Nettinga said. “And the best part of my job is helping the graduates plan their commencement. It is truly a celebration of the new life they have worked so hard to create.”McCann has the discretion to credit participants fine accounts. Often, if the participant has made a payment on what is owed for fines, McCann will order a credit of an equal amount. On the other side of the coin, if a participant has stepped outside the boundaries of what is encouraged, the judge can order a sanction for the behavior.“The goal is to shape their behavior towards that of a more productive and positive life, which is substance free. They are all familiar with sanctions from their experience in the criminal justice system and so the most effective tool is to give them praise and be positive. They are not used to having a judge who they feel is rooting for them and is allied with them in their recovery. So the human element of the program is the most important part of my interactions,”McCann said. During court sessions, special requests of the participants are acted upon as well. On this particular day, a woman in the program learns that her request to travel out of state to attend a graduation has been approved. She beams when McCann notes that she has made positive decisions in the program and she has earned the special request.“The people we serve are staying in the community, rather than going to prison, which doesn’t solve anything,” Nettinga notes.
“They each have an incredible story to tell, and their participation in Drug Court is another chapter. Our court sessions are open to the public, and if anyone has an interest, I encourage them to come and see what can happen when the judicial system attacks a social problem from a problem-solving perspective.”