Jason Drift’s drug use seemed to increase every time he suffered a death in the family.
A 44-year-old environmental services worker on the Bois Forte Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, he had begun taking prescription pain pills for knee problems in the early 2000s.
Hydrocodone, Oxycotins and Percocets eased his physical pain.
But then his sister died and he found himself snorting 20-plus of them per day. Pills became hard to come by when users got flagged at pharmacies. So he started spending half his paychecks buying them from low-level dealers in the area.
A blurry two years later, he had turned to snorting meth. In the fall of 2017, after a police officer found marijuana and a gram of meth in his car, he found himself facing imprisonment if convicted of a felony crime of fifth-degree possession of methamphetamine.
But there was an alternative.
He could avoid prison if he were accepted into the 13-month Range Hybrid court program, operated by the Sixth Judicial district in northern Minnesota. The program is designed to provide people accused or convicted of non-violent, felony drug and alcohol related crimes an alternative to traditional probation supervision.
Participants who complete the program successfully can have their charges dropped from the record.
Drift, an enrolled member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa in northeastern Minnesota, was accepted as a candidate.
But over a year ago, when he first found himself face to face with Judge Michelle Anderson, who presides over the court in the St. Louis County Courthouse in Virginia, Mn.,—and the team of assistant attorneys, public defenders, probation officers and chemical dependency and mental health experts who told him they were there to help him—he was wary.
“It sounded sketchy,” he remembered. “I didn’t want to be there.”
The Choice: Incarceration or Treatment Court
Judge Anderson has garnered praise from prosecutors and defense attorneys who say it is a proven system that gets adults charged with drug possession and driving under the influence of alcohol out of jails and prisons and into rehabilitation.
The state court administrator for Minnesota Treatment Courts reported last year that 54 percent of statewide participants graduate, while 94 percent receive treatment and 80 percent complete at least one phase of the five-phased program.
New charges and convictions are lower for participants who spend half as much time in prison and two-thirds as much time in jail compared to non-participants.
Since its creation in 2006, the Range Hybrid court served 292 people, of which 67 percent graduated from the program, according to the area court’s recent studies. Eighty-three percent entered the program with a drug felony and 17 percent for a DUI. Fifty-five percent of them were men and 45 percent women. Ages ranged from 19 to 54.
Between 2017 and 2018, the court estimated that 45 percent of the participants were white, 26.21 percent Native American or Alaskan Native; 6.80 percent Latino; 4.85 percent black and 16.5 percent other.
About 91 percent had co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders, 70 percent experienced trauma or violence and 65 percent did not have money to meet basic needs.
The program handles a maximum of 50 pre-and post-adjudication cases at a time from Minnesota’s “Iron Range” region, and uses therapeutic principles of addiction programs that have become popular in similar courts across the state of Minnesota and the U.S.
Participants like Drift must agree to weekly treatments with the team.
When asked later about the court proceedings, Drift recalled feeling “a little bit leery” when standing before the judge and hearing her ask him, “How are you today?”
But his feelings have since changed after nearly one year of meeting with her as well as members of the Treatment Court Team, some of whom are open to participants and the HDT about their own experiences in recovery programs.
“When I entered the program, I was still feeling fidgety with meth in my system and the judge could see me because I couldn’t wear my glasses. My pupils looked like two piss holes in snow banks,” Drift said.
“I’d seen a lot of people fail their UAs or have to go to treatment again, but she gives them chances. I think she’s a good judge for the program. She’s fair. She’s honest. She gives you a chance to turn your life around.”
Keep Your Guard Up
Anderson depends upon her legal experience and the Treatment Court Team to uphold the rules of the program and help navigate somewhat contentious issues, such as monitoring the use of medication-assisted treatment, including Suboxone, the most common form of buprenorphine.
Three months ago, the Minnesota Department of Corrections approved a new policy to allow people on parole or supervised release to use medical marijuana. The move has been a hot topic for the judge and her team.
Anderson also depends largely on the court’s two probation officers — Gary Flannigan and Jeff Oja— who increased their typical caseloads to include up to 50 more cases from the treatment court program.
Reflecting on the services, David Holmbeck, a supervisor of Arrowhead Regional Corrections said that the St. Louis County territory covered by his officers, at 6,860 square miles, represents one of the largest counties in the nation.
Because of its vastness, the county is the only one in the state that has chambered judges working in separate courthouses in three cities: Duluth, Hibbing and Virginia.
“Staffing alone is also an issue,” Holmbeck said. “And the caseload numbers are relatively the same, but the involvement with clients has dramatically increased. The level of needs for our clients has increased because of the increase in opioid addiction, meth and mental illness.
“About 25 years ago, it was a DUI offender. Now, we’re running into more people with psychological distress.”
But officers have improved to meet demands.
“We’re better at what we do because we’re incorporating more cognitive-based programming to help reduce recidivism and changing criminal thinking and behaviors,” Holmback explained.
Fifteen years with Arrowhead Regional Corrections has shaped Flannigan into a seasoned officer with enough experience to believe that the “difference between parolees from prison and clients on probation is that instead of being hardened, a lot of the treatment courts participants are desiring to change in life.
“Really it’s an addiction that’s bringing them into the criminal justice system.”
He maintains his outlook despite the Range Hybrid court evolving from taking on low-risk offenders to high-risk, high-need individuals who might carry longer criminal histories.
“We want people who have serious chemical dependency addictions and are struggling with the disease,” he said. “Some people might opt out and choose jail, but that’s very rare. People are talkers until they’re sitting in jail. In the beginning, a lot of people fight the system. But most of them are thankful down the road.”
During their scheduled and random visits, Flannigan and Oja are seldom paired up together.
Neither of them are permitted to carry firearms. Instead, they arm themselves with bullet-proof vests, pepper spray, radios and handcuffs. Most importantly, they are trained in de-escalation tactics and use of force; yet they are comforted knowing that law enforcement can be called upon when needed.
“We’re mindful and we know we’re not a force like law enforcement is when they kick in doors and make extractions,” Flannigan said. “If we find violations, we make arrests. If someone is extremely violent or belligerent, we are trained to get out of the situation. Our safety is paramount.”
He added: “Do bad things happen? Yes. We’ve had close calls and scary situations. But it’s amazing how rare we run into violent situations.”
Flannigan’s focus in the beginning stages of the program is to establish a rapport with his clients. But trust is difficult when it comes to people often suffering from co-occurring chemical dependency and mental health issues.
“Addicts are some of the most manipulative, tricky, savvy people that I work with,” he said.
“They’re addicted to very powerful drugs and you don’t expect complete 100 percent sobriety. We take a therapeutic approach to relapses and then sanction them if they’re lying or we might put them in jail for a weekend.
“Absconding is common. And when we’ve exhausted every avenue, then they are labeled ‘Not Amenable to Probation’ and are kicked out of the program.”
Why does Flannigan work a job where he always has his guard up?
“People change. We see the transformation in front of our eyes.”
During the second phase of the Range Hybrid court program, Drift began Moral Reconation Therapy in addition to attending weekly recovery meetings, bi-weekly court hearings and complying with treatment and supervision.
“I realized then that it’s for the best that I turn my life around and get my kids back in my life,” he said.
After his decision, he was able to secure another job from a supportive group at Fortune Bay Resort and Casino, and worked with a county social worker who helped him figure out the maze of paperwork needed to retain his driver’s license and pay child support again.
She also helped him move out of his brother’s house and into a 12-step house and then into his co-worker’s sober house in Virginia, which is half a block from the courthouse.
“Alex pointed me in the right direction,” he said. “This program is making me more responsible.”
For Drift, the month of July marks nearly one year clean and sober. He owes the court $100 to move into the final phase of the program and sometimes struggles to afford the $1,200 program cost, child support, rent and other bills. But he counts himself lucky to have dodged transportation troubles.
Plus, it beats doing time. If all goes well, he expects to graduate in September.
It was about one year ago when Drift first saw his two youngest daughters again. It had been several years.
“They didn’t barely know me,” he said. “The older one called me Dad. But the younger one didn’t know me well. Now they will call me up to chat with me.”
Drift is now gearing up to celebrate his birthday later this month.
“I reserved a pontoon boat for my two girls on Lake Vermilion so we can have some fun.”
Looking forward, he prays that he can reconnect with his oldest daughter.
Eric Killelea, assistant editor of the Hibbing (Minn.) Daily Tribune, is a 2018-2019 John Jay/Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story produced for his fellowship reporting project, part of a series examining the state of rural justice in Minnesota. The full story, and other parts of the series, are available here.