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Olmsted County's drug court providing 'hope' to those fighting addiction

Olmsted County's drug court providing 'hope' to those fighting addiction

Every Thursday at 2 p.m. on the sixth floor of the county courthouse, people gather together to transform lives and break the cycle of substance abuse. Present in the room are lawyers, community members, corrections officers, social workers, parole officers, counselors, court participants, family, friends, and a judge. They are all here for Olmsted County's drug court program.

There are now 23 active participants in the drug court, which this week is celebrating its first graduating class. There are five phases to completion. It takes between one and two years to complete the program, and every participant’s journey is unique. 

Joe Vogel, the court’s coordinator, says the drug court, which first launched in June 2016, is geared toward those who are at the highest likelihood of relapse. It’s an evidence-based model of criminal justice and drug treatment that can provide good outcomes for those for whom the traditional court system hasn’t worked. 

Drug court is not easy. There are inpatient and outpatient treatment requirements throughout the program as well as a willingness to attend pro-social activities and counseling. Attendance at the weekly Thursday gatherings is mandatory in the earliest phases, and even after a participant graduates to the later phases of the program, they are still required to come to court regularly.

“This program is not a free pass. It’s difficult,” Vogel says.

Two qualities make the county's approach effective for non-violent drug offenders: 1) regular, positive contact with the judge and 2) randomized urinalysis (UA) testing. All participants must call in every day to find out if they need to come in for a drug test. Tests are regularly required but they are never on a predictable schedule. 

While participating in drug court certainly is different than serving time in prison, it’s not necessarily easier. According to participant Santana White, it is actually a lot harder. “To go to prison is taking the easy route," she says. "You just sit there. Drug court is work. You have to put everything into it. You have to put your whole life into it. It’s every day. The life of recovery.” 

The trajectory of White’s life changed dramatically last December. She was in a jail cell when she learned that her mother had taken her own life. Time froze in that moment. She was determined to make a change.

“I’d seen addiction go through my family," says White. "My mom was an alcoholic. My last memory of her is me and her using meth together. After she died, it hit home. I couldn’t do it anymore. I put my foot down, and I said I’m done. I’m ready to be sober.” 

She first went to inpatient therapy in South Dakota. When she returned to Rochester, she was met with the full support and encouragement of the Olmsted County Drug Court team.

“I’ve done over 200 hours of inpatient treatment since March of 2017,” White reflects. 

For most of her life, White says she has felt strong opposition any authority figure, but with drug court, everyone involved treats her with respect and care which has helped her feel more open to their support.

“I know I have people to come to. I can talk to the judge," she adds, "I can call my PO (parole officer), my treatment counselor. I can call anybody that I need to call. It’s my drug court family. We’re all family.”

Reflecting on her interactions with Judge Kathy Wallace, the court’s primary judge, White reflects, “The judge is fair. If you’re not doing what you’re supported to be doing, there’s the possibility of incarceration or sanctions or work service hours. But if you’re doing what you need to do, it’s a good program. A lot of people get caught up in lying. This is an honesty program. You have to be completely honest. It takes someone very strong and very compassionate to be a drug court judge.”

The greatest challenging facing drug court in Vogel’s opinion is the limited capacity. The staff’s bandwidth is at maximum capacity but there are more candidates who’d like to get involved. Those who are in the program are staying in it and not dropping out which is great news. “I didn’t anticipate such high retention,” Vogel reflects. 



He wants the community to know that they can be involved in making drug court a success. Anyone can come to drug court on Thursday afternoons at the courthouse. It’s held every week at 2 p.m. There is a seating area in the courtroom that’s open to all. 

Those who attend on a Thursday can expect to see all the participants in the program sitting together offering one another support and encouragement. When the lawyers arrive, they greet all the participants with a handshake, and the rest of the support team does the same. As each participant approaches the bench, the judge connects with them individually to hear about life updates.

There are consequences for poor decisions but there is never shaming. Instead, support and affirmation is expressed for every good decision. For those who relapse and admit it publicly, there is encouragement for the willingness to be honest, “You made a good choice today.” 

As the total days of each participant’s sobriety are spoken aloud, everyone in the room claps. Participants are encouraged to recognize their own value, worth, and capacity to make good decisions. Santana White reflects on the advice she’d give to anyone who is currently standing in the shoes she was in last year: “It gets better. I’m living proof. If I can get through it, anyone can. I want people to have hope.” 

White is now is sober, employed, in a healthy relationship, and has been granted regular visitation with her seven-year-old daughter. “Drug court helped me accomplish all of this.” 

Emily Carson is a curator of curiosity. She loves exploring southeastern Minnesota with her husband, Justin, and their Redbone Coonhound, Finn. In addition to her work as a local columnist and communications professional, she is also an ordained Lutheran pastor. Find Emily on Twitter and Instagram at @emilyannecarson and on her website

Cover photo: Olmsted County Drug Court team at Sober Fest 2017

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