Benefits, drawbacks of county drug court discussed

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Flathead County Deputy Attorney Travis Ahner is one of the latest local officials to weigh in on the impact a drug court could have on the community.

“We are all in agreement there is a drug-use epidemic and it is driving a lot of crime,” Ahner said. “In order to solve this problem we need to invest energy and possibly invest money. The question is ‘what is the most effective way to do that?’”

Ahner was speaking Oct. 27 during a series of community conversations hosted by the Glacier Country Pachyderm Club. The series has included a variety of voices designed to explore whether or not a drug court would be a good fit for the Flathead Valley.

“This is an important issue for the community,” said Glacier Country Pachyderm Club President Todd Bernhardt.

There are benefits and drawbacks to adopting a local drug court, he said.

“If we understand those, we can make a good decision as a community going forward,” Bernhardt said.

Drug 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.

Offenders make frequent court appearances and are drug-tested regularly, while also maintaining the opportunity for employment in the community.

The community conversation series has included Flathead District Court Judge Heidi Ulbricht; Kalispell Police Officer Cory Clarke, who gave his perspective as a school resource officer; Scott Warnell, administrator for Montana Health and Human Services, who provided a social services response to drug court; and Rep. Randy Brodehl, R-Kalispell, who discussed the financial implications of implementing a drug court.

Brodehl said if the community decides to implement a drug court, it needs to look at long-term funding right away.

“The evidence shows that drug courts work,” Brodehl said. “But it’s incredibly important that local communities plan how to fund it,” he said.

District courts are eligible to receive start-up funding from the state for a drug treatment court, which provides about $350,000 for three years.

But Brodehl, who serves as chair on the committee that distributes drug-court funding, warned local communities not to count on additional state support beyond those three years.

Other potential funding options could include local grants, county and/or city taxes, donations and fundraisers, he said.

Ahner said when it comes to implementing new government programs he prefers to “proceed with caution.

“Once they get started they can be difficult to stop, even if they are not effective,” Ahner said.

Ahner said he also isn’t in favor of what he calls government redundancy.

“If there is two different programs that are overlapping and addressing the same thing, I find that to be a problem,” he said.

Drug courts are typically made up of teams that include a judge, county attorney, public defender, probation officer and treatment provider. While proponents of drug courts tout the more holistic team-approach of the drug court, Ahner said it also takes a lot of resources.

“That is five individuals for whom the clock is running. That’s a lot of cost, so if this is going to work it better be effective.”

In an earlier interview, Ulbricht said the additional resources drug courts provide make them a better option than the current system.

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

The local judge said she believes the benefits of the drug court outweigh the costs.

“There is a savings to the criminal justice system because this population has a reduced re-arrest, or recidivism, rate which saves law enforcement and jail resources,” Ulbricht said.

Ahner said from the research he has gathered, the success of a drug court depends on the individual jurisdiction.

He said the ability of the local probation office to supervise individuals makes a big difference as to whether or not a drug court makes sense.

If treatment is a large part of a drug court’s success, the community should make sure those treatment options are available, he added.

“If we are dealing with addicts and trying to sanction them and say ‘you have to get in and do treatment,’ if there is no one there to do the treatment that is a problem,” he said.

Residents in favor of a local drug court were especially interested to hear Ahner’s opinion because the future of such a court depends on support from the Flathead County Attorney’s Office. Ahner will be running for the position of County Attorney in 2018.

“Drug court might be the best answer for Flathead County,” he said. “I think there are some questions we should ask and get answered before we do this,” he added.

Bernhardt said the Pachyderm Club plans to hold additional public forums. The group posts upcoming events on Facebook and www.gcpachy.org.

Reporter Breeana Laughlin can be reached at 758-4441 or blaughlin@dailyinterlake.com.

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