Scott County's alternative justice programs continue to serve critical needs in the community for those battling addiction and mental illness, those involved with the specialty courts told the Scott County Board of Commissioners at a meeting this month.
Scott County First Judicial District Judge Christian Wilton is one of two judges presiding over Scott County Treatment Court, which serves high-risk, high-need adults dealing with addiction in efforts to improve their quality of life, reduce recidivism and ultimately prevent overdose deaths.
Winter months are especially difficult for addicts, Wilton said, but this year, the arrival of spring brought an even more challenging season.
The pandemic halted drug testing and house visits from probation and police officers. Court appearances and other meetings were held virtually, and self-isolation — a risk behavior for those experiencing addiction — became the surest way to avoid COVID-19.
In March, the first overdose death occurred among a program participant.
"He appeared virtually on a Monday afternoon — I watched him and looked at him and talked to him at three o'clock in the afternoon," Wilton recalled. "By the next day, the next night, he was dead."
Those overseeing the participant all believed he was sober.
"Great young man — had turned his life around," Wilton said. "And when you take everything away, this is what you revert back to."
Between March and June, over 90% of his participants ended up relapsing.
The devastation caused by the pandemic's early months illustrate the treatment court's effectiveness, Wilton said. It's even clearer now what happens if these services are discontinued.
Scott County's treatment court began operations in October 2016 as a three-year pilot program funded by $900,000 from the county's budget and $350,000 in federal grant money. In the years prior, the county had experienced a sharp increase in felony drug charges.
Last year, when the grant support for the court ended, the county board continued to support the treatment court operations and also launched a veteran's treatment court with funding from a federal grant and the county's budget.
Heidi Kastama, program coordinator with both specialty courts, said the average participant achieves graduation in 22 months.
Throughout the program, participants work towards obtaining employment, stable housing and a driver's license — all can be challenging processes for someone with a felony on their record.
Data collected over the first four years of the treatment court's operations show these efforts have been successful.
In Scott County, 10 program participants had stable housing when they entered treatment court, but all 21 graduates had secured stable housing upon graduation.
More than a dozen participants found employment during their time in treatment court and all but one participant graduated with a driver's license.
Research shows treatment courts reduce recidivism anywhere from 35% to 80%, according to information presented by Kastama.
To date, no graduate has committed a new felony.
Wilton said support and participation from local law enforcement is a cornerstone of Scott County's program and its successes.
"There are a lot of cops that would look and say, 'this program is garbage — you're just letting the bad guys out,' and they don't see the value in changing human beings," he said.
Shakopee Police Sgt. Jamie Pearson is one of the local officers who has "bought-in" to building relationships over the years after at first being skeptical of treatment courts. She even keeps in touch with some participants who she met doing curfew checks.
The Shakopee Police Department has conducted nearly 1,000 of these check-ins since the court began.
"You have some officers that are going to knock on the door, 'you're here, okay, have a good night,' and that's going to be the extent of it," Pearson said. "And there's others who really go the extra mile and build a relationship."
Looking ahead, Kastama said they're hoping to adjust the program's eligibility criteria to be able to serve more individuals in the treatment court. Previously, the federal grant limited which type of offenses could be on someone's record before entering treatment court.
Recently, a relapse track was incorporated for those who need it.
There's also a continued interest in bringing residential treatment programs to the south metro. There's one program for men in Scott County, but none for woman and local outpatient services can't meet the area's demand.
Access to sober housing remains a priority as well to prevent individuals from being held in jail with no treatment beds or safe housing options are available.