Tribal, District Courts Work Together in Special Northland Courts

By KBJR News 1

August 17, 2012 Updated Aug 17, 2012 at 6:55 PM CDT

Grand Rapids, MN (Northland's NewsCenter) - Two special courts in the Northland are the only of their kind in the country. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe pairs with the Cass and Itasca County court systems to bring both cultures into the court room.

"Justice as usual, we haven't seen good results with that and I think that by both of the systems coming together, tribal members have a greater trust in the system and the tribe has a hand in these cases," said Leech Lake Tribal Court Judge Korey Wahwassuck.

The joint tribal-state venture presides over a wellness court, a program that helps recovering addicts become sober.

It's a different approach to a problem that Wahwassuck says is widespread among Leech Lake and its surrounding communities. Wahwassuck says that a study of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe found that about 60-percent of their members struggle with some sort of addiction and about 90-percent are directly affected by family members with addictions.

"It's something that's a huge issue, not only on the reservation, but all over in the communities," said Judge Wahwassuck, "We look at this as being a community problem. Leech Lake overlaps with four counties and we really do look at this as something we need to attack as a community problem."

"I usually drank every day," said Wellness Court participant, David DeVault, "It all started from drinking back in '87 and here it is 2012 and I'm finally putting and end to it."

DeVault is one of 34 recovering addicts who have found hope in the wellness program.

"It changed my life, dramatically," DeVault said.

Tribes from other parts of the country have noticed the joint tribal-state wellness court.

"We have had other representatives from tribes in other parts of the country that have come to observe our wellness court in Itasca county," said Itasca County District Court Judge John Hawkinson.

Hawkinson says he takes pride in the program.

"In my 20 years as a judge, there has been nothing more rewarding than wellness court," he said.

Participants in the Wellness Courts' Cass County program will graduate on September 13th.

The court serves both Leech Lake Band members and non–members.

Written for the web by Jennifer Austin.