One of the success stories in North Dakota’s criminal justice system has been its drug courts. In this Journeys Through Justice story, Meg Luther Lindholm looks at how drug court works through the experience of one man who tried and failed at everything else.
Every Thursday at 4pm the gavel comes down to signal the start of drug court in Fargo, North Dakota. This week approximately 20 drug offenders have shown up to report on their efforts to stay clean of drugs and alcohol.
Judge John Irby has presided over this drug court since drug court began in this city, back in 2003. He refers to the program as probation on steroids. Which is a shorthand way of saying there are a lot of demands made of each drug court participant. Anyone who thinks they can keep using drugs or alcohol and make it through this year-long program is mistaken. Jennifer Hischer is the probation officer who oversees all drug court cases.
JH: The amount of contacts and the requirements and obligations that the participants in our program face are much greater than that of an offender who's on a regular supervision caseload.
Meg: Jennifer is part of a team that includes an outpatient addictions counselor, a prosecutor who refers offenders to drug court and Judge Irby who presides weekly on the drug court bench in Fargo.
(sound up on Judge in courtroom)
Judge Irby offers praise and a prize to each offender who has met the week’s requirements. And he sanctions offenders who have fallen off the program, usually with a trip to jail for a couple of days.
Judge Irby: I like to think I’m there to encourage them to do what they need to be doing. In the end what I can do is dish out a measure of discomfort – I have told some I can’t make you responsible, I can make you miserable. But for the most part I view my role as trying to encourage them to comply with the program, to turn their lives around.
Meg: Turning life around is much easier for some than for others. The original intent behind drug court was to treat low level offenders usually people caught using drugs - not selling them or committing violent crimes. But drug court has become a victim of its own success. Completion rates have historically been high. And recidivism rates meaning offenders who end up back in prison or jail – have been low. So, the parameters for who is accepted into the program keep expanding.
RS: I've been in and out of prison probably seven times.
Meg: Rob Stephens is a prime example of someone who would never have been referred to the drug court program 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago. To say that he has a big crime record would be an understatement. His addictions included alcohol, pot and meth. His crimes included drug possession, drug dealing, vandalism, forging checks, burglary and acts of violence. He lost jobs and alienated his family including his father who he adores. And then after all of that he was arrested again.
RS: And this would have been my eighth time back in prison. And I didn't want to go and I wanted something to change in my life and I had heard good things about the drug court program. [13.1]
Meg: He wanted to change and quit using but he wasn’t sure he could. He went to his first meeting with Jennifer, the drug court probation officer, full of doubts.
RS: I was nervous because I didn't feel like I would do very well in the program. It was a very strict program requires a lot of commitment and I've had a history in my life of giving up on things when they got tough.
Meg: But Rob was determined to show up and do the best he could. He went to all his meetings, his group therapy sessions and to drug court. He worked full-time, submitted to random drug tests and followed a curfew. July 28th 2016 was one of the proudest days of Rob’s life. That was the day he graduated from drug court. Everyone who mattered most was there – his wife, his step kids, his friends and his sponsor. And perhaps most importantly – his father was there.
RS: He stuck by me the whole time. So, to have him proud of me as is probably one of the most important things to me. And that day he was very proud. Very proud.
Meg: You can see Rob with his Dad together with this story and all the Journeys Through Justice stories online. Just go to news.prairiepublic.org, and click on the Journeys Through Justice link at the top of the page.
Journeys Through Justice has been funded in part by the North Dakota Humanities Council. For Prairie Public, I’m Meg Luther Lindholm.