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Drug court celebrates graduates

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POLSON — The Lake County Adult Treatment Court celebrated another round of graduations on June 22 with three participants successfully completing the program. 

Started by former Judge James Manley in 2016 after he realized a staggering 93% of people, he sentenced had committed crimes related to addiction. The drug court was formed with the mission of providing non-violent offenders with substance use disorders with court and treatment services to give them the tools and incentives needed to overcome their addiction and become productive members of the community. For Judge Molly Owens, who took over from Manley after his retirement in June 2022, this was her first round of graduates. 

“I like to tell this story: right before I became judge, I was a prosecutor, and I was prosecuting a defendant in front of Judge Manley at this person’s sentencing. I argued strenuously for this person to spend 12 years in prison. Judge Manley disagreed with me because this person had been a participant of drug court and had been doing really well,” Owens shared. “So, Judge Manley, in his infinite wisdom disagreed with my 12-year recommendation and allowed this person to stay in the community and parent his children and continue on with drug court. Then sure enough – last month was our first graduation since I became judge – the first person that I presided over for their graduation was the same guy that I, a year ago, said should spend 12 years in prison. So, it really was a full circle moment for me. It just showed me the power of drug court and how positive it can really be for the community, because instead of this person going away for 12 years and breaking a family … he was able to remain in the community. We have broken the cycle we hope, and his kids are with their father and are not having to visit him in prison. It was very rewarding, (it’s) a great program.” 

A minimum 14-month-long program based on the progress of the individual, drug court accepts references from probation officers and defense attorneys, misdemeanor and voluntary cases, and even family services (DFS) cases as well. The program works in five phases: first, participants will complete a multitude of weekly requirements from attending drug court meetings, group therapy sessions, legal action center (LAC) meetings, individual therapy meetings and take random drug tests. The next phase is much the same, with meetings focusing on the participant’s problem areas and identifying ways of coping with stressful situations. Phase three will address ongoing recovery needs, including relapse prevention and daily living skills to support the participant in their return to the community productively and responsibly. Phase four focuses on maintaining total abstinence from all drugs and the completion of formal treatment and working on continuing daily living and employment or education skills. 

Once the participant has completed the four phases of treatment, the fifth phase is entirely for their benefit to help maintain sobriety in aftercare, ideally keeping contact with the participant for up to two years. Graduates are invited to come to court and a group session once per month.

“Our main goal of drug court is not just to have them be compliant with everything. We want them to develop long term recovery,” Owens explained. 

With partnerships with the Medicated Assistant Treatment program at St. Joseph, two sober living houses, Never Alone Recovery Services in Ronan, Owens commented that the program has a pretty robust infrastructure of support in the county. “We’re lucky in Lake County that we do have so much community support,” she stated. “I think we sometimes think we’re in this rural space with not a lot of resources, but my drug court coordinator and I have talked with other drug courts in western Montana, like Hamilton and in Missoula even, and they don’t have as much support as we do, so we do feel very lucky.” 

This month’s graduates – Ginae Couture-Ware, Ashton James, and Michael Pierre Sr. – all of different ages, ethnicities and genders, are what Owens calls very representative of their drug court. “It has been incredibly rewarding … to witness this very special time in these participants’ lives,” Owens said. “Hopefully (we can) help amplify their successes and their transformation, and just show the public how positive that this program can be.” 

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