After months of planning by justice system and tribal officials, a proposal to establish a joint White Earth Nation-Mahnomen County drug court program has received final approval from the Minnesota Judicial Council, the policy-making body of the Minnesota Judicial Branch.
This new drug court program represents a partnership between state, local and tribal governments aimed at reducing drug abuse throughout Mahnomen County and the greater White Earth Nation tribal lands.
In December, the White Earth Tribal Government issued an urgent public health crisis after there were seven reported drug overdoses, including two deaths, within 48 hours on tribal lands. Between 2014 and 2017, there were 320 major drug cases filed in Mahnomen County, one of the state's smallest counties with less than 2,000 households. By comparison, neighboring Norman County, with a population roughly 20 percent greater than Mahnomen County, saw just 48 major drug cases filed during that same four-year span.
The program, officially called the White Earth Tribal and Mahnomen County Healing to Wellness Drug Court, targets high-risk, high-need felony offenders whose substance abuse problems caused or contributed to their current involvement with the criminal justice system. Through the program, district court and tribal judges work closely with prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers, social workers, and other justice system partners to develop a strategy that will pressure an offender into completing a treatment program and abstaining from repeating the behaviors that brought them to court. The ultimate goal is address the underlying addiction that resulted in the offender's criminal offense, and have them leave the program sober, law-abiding, and with a stable living situation.
"There is no question that our region is on the front lines of our nation's battle against the abuse of opioids and other drugs," said Ninth Judicial District Judge Anne M. Rasmusson, who is chambered in Mahnomen County and presides over the drug court alongside White Earth Nation Tribal Judge David DeGroat. "Our whole community is seeing firsthand the devastation caused by drug abuse, and we believe this program can be an important part of our community-wide response to this epidemic. We are grateful for the strong partnership we've formed between the county, our state courts, and White Earth Nation, and know that this program will have a meaningful impact on the lives of many people struggling with addiction."
Drug courts and other treatment court programs have become some of the most successful tools in Minnesota's efforts to curb drug and alcohol abuse. Today, treatment courts are operating in nearly 60 counties across the state. Minnesota has conducted multiple evaluations of the effectiveness of these programs, and has consistently found that treatment courts:
• Reduce recidivism among program participants;
• Provide long-term cost savings in the criminal justice system; and
• Result in better outcomes for offenders struggling with addiction, including higher rates of employment, stable housing, and educational attainment.
The White Earth Tribal and Mahnomen County Healing to Wellness Drug Court was launched as a pilot in October 2016 with a $250,000 one-time grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Now that program officials have completed the necessary steps and undergone the Judicial Council approval process, the drug court will be eligible to receive ongoing funding through the Minnesota Judicial Branch. In addition, White Earth Nation officials are seeking additional grants to offset White Earth Nation's ongoing commitment to the program.
The drug court convenes weekly, but alternates hearing locations between the Mahnomen County Courthouse before Judge Rasmusson, and the Becker County Courthouse before Judge DeGroat. The program relies on a partnership between White Earth Tribal Court, Mahnomen County District Court, Mahnomen County Attorney's Office, White Earth Behavioral Healthcare Network, Regional Native Public Defense Corporation, White Earth Police Department, White Earth Tribal Council, White Earth Substance Abuse, Minnesota Department of Corrections, and the surrounding county jails that currently support Mahnomen County District Court.
More information about Minnesota's drug courts and other treatment court programs can be found at " target="_blank">mncourts.gov/Help-Topics/Treatment-Courts.aspx.