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Drug courts create discussion at county level

An overcrowded jail has the concept of a drug court popping up in discussions at county board meetings and in county departments.

A drug court is a collaborative effort among law enforcement, judges, prosecutors, defense counsel, community corrections and other justice system members to handle cases involving substance-abusing offenders. The goal of the program is to rehabilitate offenders, reduce recidivism and decrease the number of prisoners in jails.

Kathy Langer, Todd-Wadena Counties Community Corrections director, said drug courts are an intriguing idea, but something she is still learning about.

"I cannot say Wadena County is seriously looking into this," she said. "We're just trying to learn more about them and how they work for other counties."

Todd and Wadena counties may look more seriously at drug courts depending on the information they receive from other counties, Langer said.

There are 18 drug courts (11 adult, four juvenile, two DWI and one family) operating in 14 counties in Minnesota. Morrison County is working on establishing one. Crow Wing is starting a court this fall.

Drug courts are problem-solving courts that Langer said are gaining popularity in the nation.

Commissioner Mary Harrison said there is no doubt that drug courts work. She just questions whether such a system is right for Wadena County. Harrison is also concerned that state officials who like the idea may try to mandate it to counties in the future.

The cost per person involved in the drug court is approximately $9,360 per person, Harrison said at the Aug. 15 county board meeting.

"I don't see how we can afford it," she said.

The best candidates for drug court are individuals who are not criminals and want help for their addictions, Harrison said. This description does not include many of the people who are in the Wadena County court system, she said.

A full-fledged drug court may not be the only option for Wadena County. Judge Sally Robertson said some of the collaborative principles involved could work for other programs. The Minnesota Supreme Court and the Minnesota Department of Human Services are working towards a Children's Justice Initiative to make child protection serve the children's needs better. It includes some drug court principles in child protection cases. Robertson emphasized the initiative is not a drug court.

"They're looking for ways to develop in that area without developing a full drug court," she said.

It costs $33,000 a year to keep somebody in prison, Harrison said. Effective treatment offers better results at fewer dollars.

Adjusting to a new state computer system is consuming the time of the Todd and Wadena County court system, she said. In the long term, counties will be looking into the drug court concept.

The court is a collaborative effort among many members of the justice system, but Sheriff Mike Carr said community corrections would bear most of the burden.

"It's mainly probation that really corrects these guys," he said.

Langer agreed that an apparent downside to the drug court is that it would be very staff- and labor-intensive.

"Our agents already have full case loads," Langer said. "I'm intrigued by it and I think it's worth looking into. I'm [just] very cautious."

Community corrections appreciates input from the community on the services and programs they provide, she said. Langer welcomes calls from the public. She can be reached at (320) 732-6165.