By Perry Backus
RAVALLI COUNTY, Montana (Ravalli Republic) — It’s been less than two months since Ravalli County started its first treatment court that aims to break the cycle of addiction, crime and incarceration.
District Judge Howard Recht feels like he’s already seen its potential.
Every week, its participants stand before the judge for a face-to-face talk about the progress they’ve made in changing their lives. No matter how small those steps may have been, those enrolled in the program are given a round of applause by the treatment team that attends the weekly hearings for progress.
“From my standpoint as the judge who sees these people week in and week out, I’ve seen something in their eyes that I don’t often see in others appearing before me,” Recht said. “I see hope in the eyes of those in treatment court.”
Treatment courts have a long history in the United States that dates back 30 years to their beginnings in Florida.
Recht proposed starting a treatment court in 2019 in Ravalli County. The idea had widespread support from the judiciary, county commission, sheriff, county attorney, adult probation and parole and local health care and mental health providers.
A $365,000 grant from the Montana Department of Justice will pay for the first three years of the program.
While there were general guidelines under the terms of the grant, Recht tailored the program to the county’s needs, including adding support after a client graduates.
In Ravalli County, candidates for the treatment court are people who have struggled with addiction and committed crimes like felony DUIs or criminal possession of dangerous drugs. People who have committed violent or sexual crimes are not eligible.
It offers people a second chance to get their lives back on track while living in their communities and with their families, but the path toward graduation isn’t easy. If the client isn’t able to meet strict conditions that include steering clear of old habits and bad influences while finding secure employment and housing, they could face incarceration with the state Department of Corrections.
“It’s challenging for the participants,” Recht said. “They have to change the people, places and things that have served as a trigger for them in the past. It’s a requirement that they change who they associate with, where they go and what they’ve done in their past addictive life in order to establish connections with people and places that no longer serve as triggers for their addiction.”
“It’s very difficult,” he said. “But we are getting reports back from some of the participants they can see that it’s a good thing. They can see the benefit of making those changes.”
Ravalli County Treatment Court Coordinator Scott Hoffman said the fledgling program currently has six enrollees. The first started on Sept. 7.
“Most of these folks have been in and out of the system quite a bit,” Hoffman said. “Without intervention, most would likely cycle. They would get out of jail, use, and then go back to jail.”
So far, Hoffman said it appears that all six are on track to move to the second phase of the program.
“That says a lot,” he said. “There are some in the program that people in the community have told us would never make it. We’ll see.”
The first phase focuses on getting people stabilized. They are all drug/alcohol tested twice a week. They meet with treatment providers. And once a week, they stand before the judge and tell him about their progress.
“I like to call that hearing the icing on the cake,” Hoffman said. “It’s different than any other court hearing. They don’t have an attorney doing all the talking for them. The only people who talk are the judge and the participant. The judge engages with them on a personal level.”
The treatment team attends the weekly hearings.
“The whole program is based on incentives as opposed to sanctions,” Hoffman said. “Those incentives may be as little as applause from the group for doing a good job during the week. Or it could be a $10 gas card to help them be able to get to work.”
The grant doesn’t allow funding to pay for small incentives like gas cards or a gift card for a pizza. The treatment team is asking the community for help in raising about $2,000 that would pay for small incentives.
Donations can be sent to: Treatment Court Coordinator, 21st Judicial District Court, Department One, 205 Bedford St., Suite A, Hamilton, MT 59840.
“These incentives may seem like a small insignificant thing, but to these folks it’s huge,” Hoffman said. “So many have kids and families who have been decimated by addiction. We are seeing families coming back together and actually talking again.”
“Being able to take their children out for ice cream or a pizza means a lot to them,” he said.
Hoffman said the program has the potential to grow. It saves taxpayers the $100 a day it costs to keep someone in jail.
Over the past five years the Billings municipal treatment court has tracked the recidivism rate of people in the criminal justice system who have completed treatment court and those who haven’t. They found 86% of the people who didn’t go through treatment court ended up being charged with a new crime.
Only 15% of those who successfully completed treatment court found themselves back in jail on a new charge. Clients with both mental health and substance abuse disorders who went through treatment court had an even lower recidivism rate of 12%.
According to the National Institute of Corrections, in 2013 every $1 spent on drug court programs yielded $9.61 in benefits over a 10-year period.
“There is a potential significant savings for taxpayers,” Recht said. “And not just immediately. There could be a reduction in recidivism, addiction and the number of crimes committed would provide for a savings down the road.”
“The real purpose for acquiring incentives is so we can reward success and progress,” he said. “Modest things like a card to get a cup of coffee or a little gas money can be helpful in encouraging their success. Many of them have never been recognized for any progress or success in their lives.”
Recht is encouraged with the program’s progress so far.
“So far, so good is all I can say,” he said.
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