Collaborative Tribal-Criminal ‘Wellness Court’ in MN Reports Successes


The first U.S. collaboration between a tribal court and state criminal tribunal to combat drug and alcohol addiction is seeing good results in northern Minnesota, the annual National Criminal Justice Association National Forum was told yesterday. The Leech Lake Tribe is working with courts in Cass and Itasca counties in Minnesota. The collaboration, called Wellness Court, is a variation of drug courts operating around the nation. Judges Korey Wahwassuck of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Tribal Court and John Smith of Cass County Court spoke to the forum, which is meeting near Albuquerque, N.M.

The judges presented two success stories in a live session of the court televised to New Mexico from Minnesota. A woman with four children who had cured her alcohol problem through the program reported that she now is “an inspiration to my kids.” A father who had been in a dozen treatment programs for drug and alcohol addiction said the Wellness Court had made him sober for 18 months, partly by using technology to do frequent random checks on him. “I couldn’t beat it,” he said. Judge Wahwassuck said there had been a “huge climate change” in the tribe, with members talking more about sobriety than about heavy drinking. Judge Smith said the tribe is more welcoming to state justice authorities than it used to be because “we are providing services and not viewed as trying to punish people.” Unlike defendants on his regular criminal docket, Wellness Court graduates regularly tell me, “Thank you for saving my life,” Smith said.

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