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Montana leaders look at future of drug treatment courts

Drug Court Graduation
Drug Court Graduation
Posted at 6:14 PM, Jan 20, 2023

HELENA - Montana lawmakers are considering whether to make an investment to keep eight drug treatment courts around the state going in the coming years.

Montana has set up 36 drug courts in district, county and municipal courts — most with an initial investment of federal grant money.

Now, some of those grants are expiring, so the Montana Legislature will have to decide if they want to direct state funds to extend those courts’ operations.

A picture of what treatment courts can accomplish was visible in Helena Tuesday.

In a packed courtroom, a crowd of family, friends and more gathered to celebrate two people graduating from the 1st Judicial District’s Adult Treatment Court.

“It feels amazing,” said Jennifer Munger, one of the graduates. “I feel proud of myself and very accomplished, and I don't feel like I need to use anymore.”

Munger started the program in 2020, after multiple criminal charges. She said it was a hard road at first, but it really changed her perspective.

“Every time I would go into an institution, they would teach me on how to be sober inside there, but I would never have the tools to come home and stay on the streets and not call my first drug dealer or go back to my relapse behaviors,” she said.

“Treatment Court shows me that I can live life without the use of drugs or alcohol. I have a family today — I have two kids, I have a fiancé," Munger continued. "And I'm not a toxic person anymore, which is the most beautiful part about my life.”

The program began in 2011, under the supervision of District Court Judge James Reynolds. Judge Chris Abbott took over in 2020 when he was appointed to replace Reynolds after his retirement.

Abbott said graduations like Tuesday’s are particularly meaningful, "it's one of the most affirming things that I do."

Drug Court Graduation
Sarah Steiger (right) graduated from the 1st Judicial District's Adult Treatment Court, in a Helena ceremony presided over by Judge Chris Abbott, Jan. 17, 2023.

Abbott said, at any given time, they typically have 20 to 25 people in the adult treatment court. It takes participants about 18 months to complete the program.

“What's nice about this program is it gives us an opportunity to see them every week,” Abbott said. “We give them encouragement for the things they're doing that improve their associations — things like getting a job, going to school, getting their driver's license back."

"We spend a lot of time trying to build up and empower people and show them the things that they can do," Abbbot continued. "But we're also watching them every week, and so when people do need a correction, we're able to give that to them right away.”

The 1st District Adult Treatment Court is already running primarily on state funding, but many other local programs haven’t made that transition yet.

Administrators said federal grants typically pay for the first three years of treatment court operations before leaders have to find another funding source.

Gov. Greg Gianforte has praised the work of the treatment courts. His budget proposal calls for $1.25 million to continue funding adult drug courts in Missoula, Hill, Lincoln, Ravalli, Park and Sweet Grass counties, a veterans’ treatment court in Missoula County, and pre-plea and Indian Child Welfare Act treatment courts in Yellowstone County.

“These drug treatment courts are a proven successful model,” he said during a news conference last week. “They provide Montanans struggling with addiction with hope and opportunity as they get clean, sober and healthy. With these investments, together we’ll add vibrancy to our communities, making them an even better place for Montana families to raise their children.”

Also in the audience at Tuesday’s graduation were several lawmakers from the budget subcommittee that focuses on public safety spending.

“It was really, I think, very impactful for us to see these two graduates at the end of their experience with the treatment court,” said Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, the subcommittee chair.

Mercer said it’s important for lawmakers to weigh the costs of the program against the success it has in keeping people from reoffending.

“There does appear to be a pretty good outcome for many of the folks that go through the program,” he said. “It's been my experience in these last two legislative sessions, the legislature has been impressed with the findings presented by the court.”

The Montana Supreme Court’s Office of the Court Administrator put together a report on drug courts this year. It says about 1,600 people entered Montana drug courts between November 2018 and October 2022. 572 – about 60% – graduated during that period.

The report says about 80% of people admitted to adult drug courts from 2016 to 2018 didn’t have another offense in the three years after starting the program. For those who successfully graduated, that number was 90%.

“The rate of re-offense or falling back into the system or relapse among people with addictions is very high, no matter what type of program you're talking about, just because addiction is a lifelong struggle,” said Abbott. “It's very hard once you've fallen into that to escape it. But I think a lot of the evidence out there is that treatment courts are empirically shown to be one of the most successful methods of keeping people in sustained recovery, and I think we've seen that in Montana.”

Munger says she hopes other people across Montana will continue to have the option that she had.

“I have overdosed many times, I have lost my family, I have lost myself,” she said. “Treatment Court helped me find myself in my own time, in my own way. Treatment Court, like I said, has saved my absolute life. And I just wish that everyone can find the recovery that I got in Treatment Court.”