Alternative Justice: Drug Courts Lead Path to Sobriety

By KBJR News 1

November 23, 2012 Updated Nov 26, 2012 at 1:21 PM CDT

Duluth, MN (NNCNOW.com) - Some of us take our day jobs for granted, but not Pam Roalstad.

Five days a week, Roalstad serves up plenty of good eats with a large side of smiles At Randy's Cafe in Duluth's Lincoln Park neighborhood.

"Slap them up once in a while,” she jokingly said. “Get these customers (to do)what they're supposed to do. Tip me big."

Now on the job a year and a half, Roalstad savors every moment of her, sober life. She said she's never held a legal job that long in her life.

"I've been an addict and alcoholic for 34 years, since I was ten years old,” she said, addressing a crowd at the St. Louis County Courthouse in October.

"I don't know if there is a hell, but if there is, her life at times has come really close to being that way,” Roalstad's probation officer, Char Applewick added.

Roalstad recently shared her struggle with drugs and alcohol during a 10th anniversary celebration of St. Louis County drug court.

"I've been sober for two and a half years and it's only because of drug court."

It's a program that has changed the lives of 400 people since 2002 and in many cases, kept people alive.

"Drug Court did not have to exist,” St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said. “But people had the vision, had the heart, had the passion for their community to step forward and put this together.”

Instead of locking up drug users; judges, police officers and other branches of the law, help steer participants to sobriety through weekly hearings and drug tests.

According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, Drug Courts are less expensive than any other criminal justice strategy.

The association says 75% of those who enter Drug Court remain arrest-free. On the other hand, up to 80% of drug abusers will be re-arrested following release from prison, and 95% will return to drug abuse.

Drug Courts return up to $27 for every $1 invested through reduced re-arrests, court hearings, the use of jail or prison beds, reduced foster care placements and healthcare utilization.

The result is a net economic benefit of up to $13,000 for every individual served in Drug Court.

40 specialty courts exist in Minnesota. Wisconsin is beginning to get involved as well.

Adult Drug Court in Ashland is still in its infancy. It was actually created based on a youth drug court program started in the late 90s, the first of its kind in the state of Wisconsin. Both program officials and the participants here say it's much better than the alternative.

"Life just wasn't stable, 28-year-old Amber Johnson said. “I didn't know what I was going to day in or day out.”

Johnson is the first and only graduate of Ashland County's Drug Court, so far.

"I've come a long way since that day I got arrested with those drugs,” she said.

Johnson spent an intense year in the program before graduating in July. She says at times she wanted to quit, but a support system including law enforcement and family helped her get through the program.

“Amber wanted a change in her life and she had the support to do that,” said Anne Whiting, the coordinator for the Ashland Drug Court.

But both the Ashland and St. Louis County Drug Courts face hurdles in helping turn lives around.

"Sustaining these programs is always a difficult thing,” Whiting said. “It saves more money in the long run, keeping people out of jail and prison systems. But you do need to fund it as you go.”

Another challenge facing Specialty Courts is ending geographic discrimination.

"Decisions should be made on behalf of community safety and public private health,” said Fred Friedman, the Chief Public Defender for St. Louis County. “Currently, how you are treated and whether you're eligible, whether you get treatment or imprisonment depends entirely too much on which county you reside in and where you supposedly committed the alleged offense."

The Adjustments and the push for funding won't come easy. But in many cases, it's an investment that has paid off.

"I never thought, in a million years, I would be where I am today,” said Roalstad. “When I speak to my mother, my mother told me she hasn't seen me this sober in over 30 years."

St. Louis County has four specialty courts: the Duluth Drug Court, the Duluth DWI Court, the Range Hybrid Drug/DWI Court, and the Duluth Mental Health Court.

Ashland Drug Court hopes to have another participant graduate in December.

Kevin Jacobsen
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