Judge urges creation of drug court

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Flathead Valley law enforcement and judicial leaders are looking for better ways to cope with the ever-growing drug epidemic, including the creation of a drug court to better deal with people with addictions.

In the Flathead, the rate of methamphetamine use continues to increase steadily, even though law enforcement continues to take more of the drug off of the streets, according to Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry.

“We are in the supply reduction business, but the demand continues to increase,” Curry said.

The Sheriff’s Office reports that it has seized 34 pounds of meth so far in 2017. This tops the 28 pounds seized in 2016, 15 pounds in 2015 and 9 pounds in 2014.

Efforts to reduce meth labs in Flathead during the past few years were successful, but had only a temporary impact on overall meth use, according to Curry.

“What happened is the Mexican cartels realized meth was a very lucrative drug, and it cost less to make than cocaine, so they started switching to meth instead. So meth had a decline for awhile because it was harder to get. But even though the manufacturing of drugs is down, it became less expensive and easier to obtain.”

Opiates and opiods, such as heroin, and certain prescription pills are also a growing problem in the Flathead Valley. These drugs occur in natural and synthetic forms, and have become some of the most commonly abused drugs worldwide.

“We are seeing the effects of opiods all the time,” said Whitefish Police Chief Bill Dial. “A lot of times a parent or grandparent will be given an opiod and will leave them in the cabinet where another family member can get a hold of them.

And they are highly addictive. Once somebody starts it’s a habit that’s very hard to get to off.”

Local law enforcement officers said there’s also a problem with “doctor shopping,” when someone gets prescription pills from multiple doctors who don’t know about each other.

Because heroin and certain prescription pills have similar effects, a user will switch to whatever they can get.

“People will bounce back and forth to whatever drug is available at the time,” Curry said.

The economic impacts of drugs are hard to monetize, but have far-reaching effects.

“Sadly, most people who are heavily addicted to drugs don’t have high-paying jobs, and if they did they wouldn’t be able to hold the job for long. So they start victimizing citizens, primarily by stealing things and selling stolen items for cash,” Curry said.

In addition to theft and burglary, drug addiction is also associated with an increase in violent crimes, such as domestic abuse and assaults, said Flathead District Court Judge Heidi Ulbricht.

“In my felony docket, I would say probably 80 percent of the offenses are related to drugs and alcohol,” she said. “We are also seeing an increase in dependent neglect, where children are being removed from the home because of chronic negligence from parents who have drug issues.”

The judge said when she is dealing with drug addicted criminals, she tries to balance punishment with rehabilitation.

“With punishment you look at the severity of the crime that was committed. But we also need to recognize if we aren’t influencing future behavior it is somewhat short-sighted.”

Local law enforcement and community groups are having some success with drug-related programs.

The Operation Medicine Cabinet program led by the Montana Northwest Drug Task Force resulted in the collection of more than 425 pounds of expired prescription medication from January to July in 2017, according to the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office. The drop-off boxes are located at the Columbia Falls Police Department, Whitefish Police Department and the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office in Kalispell.

School-related education programs, and the establishment of school resource officers, have made a positive impact on young people in the community, according to law enforcement officers.

Local groups are developing resources for people on probation who re-enter the county after serving jail time, and to help drug-addicted mothers stay clean and in contact with their children, Ulbricht said.

But there seems to be a gaping hole in the system where drug treatment is concerned. There are no inpatient drug treatment centers in the valley.

Although law enforcement and judicial officials admit the drug epidemic is large and complex, there seems to be one thing they all agree on.

“Jail is not the answer. Treatment and education is,” Whitefish Police Chief Dial said.

“I think we need to take a look at some more innovative solutions to try to reduce the jail space problem we are having,” Judge Ulbricht said.

“We can’t just lock up all the drug dealers and send them to jail. We don’t have the jail space and it would be very expensive,” Sheriff Curry added.

The establishment of a district-wide drug treatment court could reduce the amount of repeat drug offenders, according to local officials.

These courts are specialized programs designed to treat criminals with drug and alcohol dependency problems — specifically those who are highly addicted and likely to re-offend.

“With drug courts, we are looking at not only punishing past behavior. We are looking at a meaningful effort to positively influence the offender’s future behavior,” Ulbricht said.

Seventy percent of Montana drug court graduates did not re-offend in the first two years after their discharge, according to a January 2017 report by from Montana Judicial Branch. Adults participating in drug court increased their rates of employment and were much more likely to receive their drivers license while participating in drug court, according to the report.

Currently, when a drug-related offender is sentenced they either go into a Department of Corrections facility, Montana State Prison or a pre-release treatment center across the state. When they come back to the valley, they go on probation. The problem is that many of these offenders haven’t received the tools they need to maintain sobriety while they are in jail, and the heavy case load local probation officers are currently handling can make them difficult to track, Ulbricht said.

A drug court aims to hold offenders accountable while keeping them in the community, she said. Offenders make frequent court appearances and are drugged tested multiple times per week, while also maintaining the opportunity to be employed, and have support from their family.

Ulbricht first had experience with a drug courts as a municipal judge in Kalispell. Drug courts are comprised of teams that include a judge, a county attorney, public defender, probation officer and a treatment provider, she said. The team gets together with the offender regularly, providing a more holistic approach to treating drug offenders than the traditional system.

In order to be selected to be part of the drug court, offenders are pre-screened to make sure they are an appropriate candidate. They must also plead guilty, and the prosecutor and their attorney must come to a plea agreement, Ulbricht said. Once the offender is sentenced their probation officer will help monitor compliance, and a treatment provider can let other team members know how engaged they are in treatment services, Ulbricht said.

While in drug court, the offender would also have access to additional resources to help them operate as a functioning part of the community, such as the opportunity to earn a high school diploma or vocational certificate, mental health services if needed, and access to medical aid, such as dental services.

Judicial district courts are eligible to receive start-up funding for a drug treatment court, providing about $350,000 over three years.

“I attempted this last year and had support from all the stakeholders, excluding the county attorney office. Without their support and commitment, we are unable to launch a drug court in our community,” Ulbricht said.

Ulbricht urged community members to make the support of a drug court a priority for the 2018 County Attorney election.

There are an estimated 3,000 drug courts operating in the U.S., including 33 in Montana. Currently 20 of the 33 existing drug courts in Montana receive state and general fund operating dollars.

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