How Olmsted County is changing the way it handles nonviolent drug offenders
After much anticipation — and nearly 20 years after drug courts first appeared within the Minnesota criminal justice system — Olmsted County will have its own drug court early next year.
Nationally, drug courts are hailed as an antidote to mass incarceration spurred by the War on Drugs. The premise of these special courts is compliance, not conviction. Nonviolent drug offenders are offered the chance to submit to rehab, regular drug court appearances and frequent drug tests in leu of a prison sentence. Failure to adhere to program requirements results in sanctions, including brief periods of incarceration.
Minnesota’s first drug court was established in Hennepin County (Minneapolis) in 1996 and counties across the state soon followed suit. Dodge County opened a juvenile drug court in 2002 and an adult version in 2003.
But similar to its status as one of a handful of counties without a natural lake, Olmsted County’s lack of a drug court had created an island amid a sea of successful programs in neighboring counties.
“I was really frustrated why we couldn’t get it going here,” Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson said in an interview.
Opening a drug court in Olmsted County became a viable possibility when Torgerson — who has long been a proponent of drug courts — was elected to the Sheriff’s office last November.
“My passion for it comes from being a D.A.R.E. officer and instructor for 12 years, where I laid the groundwork and talked about all the good ways to stay out. But obviously as I stayed a D.A.R.E. officer for all of those years I saw students who ended up getting addicted and/or using and getting in trouble,” Torgerson said. “I had met kids at various times who became adults who were struggling with addiction or related issues and they were really helpless.”
A core staff has been assembled for the program, including probation officer Joe Vogel as the court's coordinator and the honorable Kevin Lund as the presiding judge. They hope to begin admitting clients to the program in March 2016.
“We have a lot of existing services that go above and beyond. I think [drug court] will enhance our services,” Vogel said. “There’s a lot of great work our agency does here and we wanted to make sure that if we implemented it, that we reached the at-risk population.”
About Claire Walling: Claire moved to Rochester two years ago from the Twin Cities after graduating from Hamline University. When she’s not working as a business writer she enjoys running the great trails around the region, designing and creating things, and drinking coffee. Fun fact: she was on a relay team that ran across Iowa in 54 hours. Twitter.
(Cover photo: File / CC)