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Court turns back on treatment
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Court turns back on treatment

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“When I entered this program 18 months ago, I didn’t realize that I was nothing more than an immature 41 year old child. It took a successful intensive outpatient treatment program and a little over a years counseling from a fantastic mental health specialist for me to come to this realization. Thank you very much for those two gifts, because I never would have given myself these things on my own.”

– From a letter written by a Montana drug court graduate included in the report “Montana Drug Courts: A Snapshot of Success and Hope.”

Missoula helped pave the way for treatment courts in Montana. In 2007, we hosted the state’s very first mental health court.

And over the past few years, the reasoning behind these specialized courts has proven sound. They are effective at preventing recidivism, which keeps people from landing back in court over and over again, which in turn helps keep court costs down – as well as costs to police and detention officers.

But they only work if they’re being used.

Which makes Chief Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Jenks’ recent reluctance to use them puzzling – and troubling.

Calling the Missoula Co-Occurring Treatment Court a “Cadillac” option, Jenks explained in a Missoulian news story last Sunday that the city doesn’t have the resources to devote to such a small number of offenders.

These are for the most part non-violent offenders who have agreed to follow a detailed plan to receive a reduced or deferred sentence. These are people whose run-ins with the law stem from their struggles with substance abuse or mental illness. These are people who, given the right kind of help regaining control over their lives, will not commit the same offenses again.

So it’s a matter of devoting sufficient resources now to prevent recurring offenses – or devoting them on an exponential scale in the future. Drug courts, veterans courts and mental health courts will not be the best option for every offender – that doesn’t mean they should be eliminated as options altogether.

Jenks is right about one thing, however: Montana’s treatment courts are, in general, chronically in need of more funding and resources.

The 2009 legislative session was the first year the state agreed to appropriate money to drug courts, and the appropriation was continued in 2011. That approval followed a January 2011 report by the Montana Supreme Court Office of Court Administrator laying out, in detail, the successes of these types of courts. In fact, it found that drug courts “provide a strong investment in the recovery of drug and alcohol dependent persons involved in criminal, juvenile, and child abuse and neglect cases.” The reoffense rate among drug treatment court participants, it found, is only about 15 percent.

These findings helped convince the 2011 Legislature to continue funding treatment courts located in districts throughout the state, and hopefully, the 2013 Legislature will be similarly convinced. However, every one of the state’s treatment courts was established with federal funding, and various treatment courts in Montana continue to rely on grants to remain in operation.

Right now, the Missoula Co-Occurring Treatment Court is using a two-year federal grant to pay for a case manager, and appropriations from the state to pay for a coordinator. And for its part, the municipality of Missoula has very generously allowed Municipal Court Judge Marie Andersen to spend some hours, once a month, reviewing treatment court cases.

But Jenks contends that Municipal Court cannot spare even that small sliver of time. Consequently, until Municipal Court agrees to a new memorandum of understanding with the co-occurring treatment court, Andersen will not be overseeing any treatment court cases.

A new agreement should be put in place at once so that Jenks and her peers may again refer offenders to treatment courts. And she should be actively working with the Missoula Co-Occurring Treatment Court administrators to ensure that any other concerns she has can be resolved as quickly as possible.

Earlier this year, the Missoulian editorial board applauded Jenks for her tough stance on offenders who ignore fees. We lauded her strict focus on accountability, including her willingness to apply sanctions when offenders failed to show up in court, or failed to refrain from drug or alcohol use. We also noted that her approach produced an immediate, measurable result in the form of increased collections.

Treatment courts may not have immediate results, but their results are measurable – and by every measure, they are highly beneficial. It’s worth devoting the necessary time and resources in treatment programs now, instead of into police and court costs later, in order to make Missoula’s future more free from crime.

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