Tricounty News

Stearns County drug court celebrates 10 successful years

Powerful testimonials earlier this month during a celebration recognizing the tenth anniversary of Stearns County's drug court. A ceremony was held Friday afternoon, July 13, in the Stearns County Courthouse. In attendance was Stearns County Drug Court Judge Frederick Grunke, Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Helen Meyer, and Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Louise Bjorkman, the founder of Stearns' drug court Judge Bernard Boland, Minnesota District Court Judge and president of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals Judge Robert Rancourt, Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall, the Chief Executive Officer at the National Association of Drug Court Professionals West Huddleston, and drug court graduates.

Stearns County Attorney, Janelle Kendall, recalled the day she was asked to venture into this new program. "My connection to the drug court began literally the morning after my election in November of 2002," said Kendall. "Judge Boland called me at home, congratulated me on my victory, and wanted to know when we could get together to talk about his drug court."

Realizing existing methods of dealing with the high volume of drug-related offenses were not working, were costly and unproductive, Judge Bernard Boland went to Kendall for her support of drug court. "I knew we could do better than send these people off to jail and wait for them to come back into our court system," said Judge Boland. "So often that's what happened."

Ten years and 143 graduates later, now-retired Judge Boland says, "I look at it as the most successful thing I did in my career. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction."

Numbers show this program is very successful for Stearns County. Since inception of the program,

63 percent of participants graduated. Of those graduates, 81 percent remained crime free versus 41 percent of those on traditional probation. More surprisingly, even 59 percent of those who participated in drug court but didn't graduate remained crime free. For every dollar invested into the program, there is a savings of $27.

"There is less crime directly because of this program," said Kendall. "The crime that does still happen is less severe. And overall, drug court just plain reduces the number of criminals we have to deal with."

Drug court focuses on non-violent individuals charged with felony drug offenses who are most dependent and the highest risk. "We don't wait for offenders to accept responsibility and ask to get fixed. We pick them," said Kendall.

The program helps drug offenders gain self-confidence and find success in their community, work and school.

"This program has the potential to really change lives," said Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Helen Meyer. "We can help them make a better life for themselves, their family and their community."

Two graduates of the program testified how drug court changed their lives.

"The morning I was arrested, I thought it was over. Little did I know it was just the beginning," said Greg P., a graduate of the program. "I've learned to live again, function, communicate and be a better person. It feels so great to be a caring husband, father and son again. I'm honored to give back to the community." A former meth user, Greg graduated in April 2008 and is now part owner in his family business and works on his hometown fire and rescue team.

"When I got into trouble, the weight was lifted off my shoulders. I realized I didn't have to do this anymore and I knew everything would be okay," said Lisa S., who graduated from drug court and has been sober for 6-1/2 years. "I was tired of my life the way it was. I missed out on holidays, seasons, weeks, even months. I lived most of my drug years in my basement. This drug court sees something in us that we can't see in ourselves. They believed in me and I then started to believe in myself. I've had 2 jobs now for 5 years; before I couldn't keep a job for

1 month. I'm going to St. Cloud State and getting straight A's. I have my daughter back. I've built respect, rapport, integrity and trust."

West Huddleston, CEO of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals out of Washington D.C. presented the Stearns County drug court team with an award.