A new Hill County program to help justice system defendants deal with addictions and reduce future conflicts with law enforcement is nearly in full operation, with the person spearheading the creation of the Hill County Driving Under the Influence Court saying this morning she hopes it will start working with DUI offenders by Dec. 6.
“We’re working on screening and accepting people, ” Hill County Justice of the Peace Audrey Barger said.
Barger said the county received a $68,000 grant from the Montana Department of Transportation to help set up the court.
The county has approved setting up the DUI Court and a drug court as an alternative to other sentences in drug and DUI cases.
Barger said the courts did not receive, this round, a federal grant for which she applied to set up a drug court, but will apply again for that funding.
The purpose of the courts is to provide intensive local supervision and counseling to help people overcome their addictions, keeping them out of the courts, jails, prisons and treatment programs in the future.
Montana has been in the forefront of providing alternative programs to help people with drug and alcohol addictions, with a variety of treatment programs under the jurisdiction of the Montana Department of Corrections available to use as alternatives to prison time.
The success rate of those programs in preventing future repeat offenses is much higher than standard prison sentences, and the success rate of the growing number of drug and DUI courts in the state is even higher.
Barger points out that the local treatment courts also are much less expensive.
The program uses a highly coordinated program to supervise the offendees, including representatives of the county attorney’s office, the public defender’s office, local attorneys, the adult probation and parole office, addiction and mental health counselors, and the court.
“You have no idea how hard this whole team has worked to make this go …, ” Barger said. “This is a collaborative effort of every criminal justice agency in the county, and it has to be or it won’t work. ”
The Hill County DUI Court has hired its own employee, under the supervision of the county attorney’s office, to coordinate the actions of the court and to act as the special probation officer for the court.
Barger said that employee, Tony Heaton, has started his position and is receiving additional training for his work.
Part of his job will be administering the sanctions for infractions that occur while someone is under the jurisdiction of the court, and in rewards for achieving goals — a main part of the drug and DUI court concept is using both while helping people overcome their problems.
A key is the focused, long-term attention and support provided to people sentenced to the drug or DUI court.
Judges, including Barger and City Court Judge Margaret Hencz and the state District Court judges, can send offenders to the DUI court if they determine that is the most appropriate action, rather than jail or prison time or the state-run treatment programs.
The program is voluntary, and people must choose to accept their referral to the DUI court and actively participate in the program. The local judges — and any member of the DUI Court team — can refer people to the program to receive its services. The team will meet each week to evaluate referrals, with any member of the team able to veto the referral.
The program’s team evaluates each referral to make sure the court is appropriate for the offender, and the offender will be able to work in it. If anyone on the team believes it will be a waste of time for the court to work with an offender, the court won’t work with that person and will send him or her back to the original court to be sentenced.
If participants complete their required actions, they are rewarded — and, if they fail to complete them they are punished, including possibly being ordered to complete community service or serve jail time. The penalties and the rewards set in advance, so participants know exactly what to expect.
The program includes treatment, testing and keeping a very close eye on the person who comes before the drug court. It also provides a much-longer term of supervision than is normal in the alternatives, such as a 30-day treatment program in a misdemeanor case or even a sentence to a state program in a felony offense.
“Nobody can beat an addiction in 30 days, ” Barger said. “And, I see it over and over and over. … They need to get the tools and learn the tools to let them remain alcohol and drug free when they are in the community. I mean, it’s easy to do it when you’re in a facility but when it really comes to it is when you’re out and you have to try to figure out how to try to live every day. ”