By Nathan Johnson
Regular observers of judicial proceedings would probably have been taken aback Wednesday when the sound of applause echoed around the large courtroom at the Yankton County Courthouse and Safety Center.
A somber atmosphere typically accompanies court proceedings. But this was not a typical court proceeding.
On Wednesday, Yankton County held the second session of its weekly drug court, an initiative local officials hope will reduce recidivism and help participants overcome drug addiction.
As evidenced by the applause, drug court has a more informal and supportive atmosphere than traditional court.
“I think it’s been positive so far. I’m impressed with some of the responses that the clients have given us,” said Lt. Todd Brandt with the Yankton Police Department. “I’m optimistic this will succeed.”
A drug court team began training and planning for the January implementation in Yankton County last spring. Among its members are court services officers, a defense attorney, a prosecutor, a police officer, a treatment provider and a judge.
Yankton County is the fifth location in the state to administer alternative sentencing for drug or drunk driving offenses. Yankton County could add a driving under the influence (DUI) court in the future, officials say.
Magistrate Judge Tami Bern oversees the court proceedings but has no more say over how participants will be rewarded or punished for their behavior than the rest of the drug court team.
“It’s exciting to have an opportunity to do something that is innovative and focuses more on rehabilitation than anything else,” she said when asked why she agreed to be a part of the program.
Currently, there are five participants in what will be a three-phase, 18-month drug court program if they successfully complete it. The non-violent, adult felony offenders who have had trouble with controlled substances must submit an application that the Yankton County State’s Attorney Office reviews. If the prosecutor thinks the individual is a good candidate, the application is presented to the rest of the drug court team for final approval.
During the first six-month phase, participants must attend drug court, submit to multiple urine analysis tests and attend treatment meetings on a weekly basis. With each phase, the requirements are loosened.
On Wednesday, participants were called up to the judge’s bench individually. A microphone was set up for them so the other drug court team members seated in the jurors’ stand could hear the ensuing conversation.
“So we survived one week!” Bern exclaimed as the proceedings got under way. “Today, we’ll discuss your week and how things have been going. We’re also here to answer any questions.”
Each participant was asked about how treatment had been going, as well as their individual job search efforts. They politely answered the judge.
One male offered that it would be nice if there was a drug court fact sheet that could be given to potential employers. Bern said it was an excellent suggestion and something the team had been discussing.
At the end of the brief exchanges, they were asked how many days they had been sober. The drug court team applauded as the participants racked up another week of sobriety.
However, it wasn’t all positive reinforcement.
In one case, a man had missed a curfew check because he had slept through the calls and knocks on the door. The team believed he had been sleeping inside his residence as claimed but decided to give him an earlier curfew for a week as punishment. He explained the precautions he had taken to make sure it didn’t happen again.
In another instance, a female had witnessed an assault that she may or may not have had a hand in initiating and refused to speak with an officer about it. As punishment, the team decided she would spend 24 hours in jail starting after her treatment session that night.
“At the very least, you should have spoken with the officer,” Bern said.
Brandt said the team wants to see these individuals succeed in becoming and staying sober.
“That’s why we offer the positive reinforcement,” he said. “Even though some of them may receive sanctions, there is still positive reinforcement to build them back up.”
Added John Billings, the deputy state’s attorney on the team, “We want to develop a trust relationship so they know, if there is a problem they need to address, they can come to us and openly discuss it. The response will be supportive, even though there may be some sanctions. It will still be positive in the sense of helping them get through it and continuing on with staying sober.”
South Dakota Chief Justice David Gilbertson has been a major advocate of the alternative sentencing programs in the state. He points out that 70 to 80 percent of the graduates from existing programs in the state have not re-offended.
In Pierre this week, Gilbertson spoke about the importance of passing reforms to the corrections system that are being proposed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard that include alternative sentencing options.
“Nearly 50 percent of those who are sent to prison for drug crimes will be arrested for another drug offense within a few years of their release,” Gilbertson said about traditional sentencing, according to Sioux Falls television station KELO. “The revolving door and the state’s open checkbook continue on and on.”
In addition to Yankton, there are drug courts in Meade and Minnehaha counties. DUI courts are held in Pierre and Aberdeen.
State officials are pressing for a half dozen more such courts in other parts of the state within the next two years.
Drug court officials in Yankton County said they could use the assistance of the community in making sure the local program is a success.
“One thing the drug court has been trying to do is find donations from the community for gift certificates and other things we can give to these people to have positive reinforcement for their successes,” Billings said. “When you look at most of these people, they’ve had a tough life. They haven’t had a lot of support. Their self-esteem is often low, which leads to drug use. We’re trying to find methods to give them rewards for doing well and keeping them on the path to sobriety so they can be productive members of society. The successes around the state and country show these programs work. The more support the community gives, the higher chance we won’t see these people back in the criminal justice system.”
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