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Drug Court Helps People Overcome Addictions

Photos by Hillary Ehlen

Last year, there were 1,372 reported incidents involving drugs in Cass County. That made up nearly 20% of all drug-related reports in North Dakota. These three are mFargo DFargo Daking an impact in trying to rid our community of drug offenses.

Nicole Burkhartsmeier recalls a participant’s parent approaching her. “I run into a mom of a drug court participant who unfortunately did not finish our program from time to time,” she said. “And every time I see her, she is so grateful for the work that we are doing. Even to this day, she gets emotional because she says, ‘If you guys would not have come along, we do not think he would still be with us.’ That was always really nice to hear.”

May is National Drug Court Month. Now, as you read that, you may be wondering what Drug Court even is. Believe it or not, it is exactly what its moniker infers, but you may not be aware that the Drug Court program has been in Fargo since May of 2000.

“We are considered to be a specialty treatment court,” said Burkhartsmeier, who is a probation officer in Fargo’s Juvenile Drug Court. “We bring in adolescents 18 years or younger who are having addiction issues and ongoing delinquency issues and we try to give them some structure and supervision to help them get back on track.” Burkhartsmeier says drug court is an “alternative to incarceration” program. People who are unable to enter drug court are often incarcerated in the juvenile or adult system.

Nicole Burkhartsmeier

Mark Hendrickson, who is one of the probation officers in the Adult Drug Court, says they differ slightly from the juvenile side. “A lot of the people we see are obviously those with addictions, but they are usually repeat offenders as well,” he said. “It is the most intense program we have outside the walls of the prison. Three things happen when they go through our program: They are provided with a structure, they are held accountable and we press upon them that this needs to be a life-changing event.”

Every case is different for both Hendrickson and Burkhartsmeier. The adult program sees a variety of different factors when they are working with a participant. These factors can include if they have anger issues, whether they have trouble holding a job or even if they have child support to pay. On the juvenile side, Burkhartsmeier looks at how the adolescent is acting and performing in school, as well as what their home environment is. It is these factors that aid the Drug Court program in attempting to eradicate these addictions.

Mark Hendrickson

Participants meet once a week in actual court in front of a judge. Outside of those meetings, the participants are in treatment as well as being supervised by their probation officer. As they progress throughout the program, the goal is to consistently scale back the amount of supervision or treatment. The one thing that stays the same is random drug or alcohol testing. Both Hendrickson and Burkhartsmeier say this is due to the program being built upon structure and accountability.

Kim Hegvik is a prosecutor for the State’s Attorney’s office and she functions as a “gatekeeper” in the adult drug court program. “All of the applications have to be processed through us,” she said. “They have to be approved by us before they are brought into the adult program.” In the juvenile system, there is an objective set of criteria that is needed before an adolescent is recommended to drug court.

Hegvik, Hendrickson and Burkhartsmeier say that the participants who do not seem fit for the program are the ones that end up graduating. “We’ve actually found that participants who have this perception of being difficult are the participants graduating the program,” Burkhartsmeier said. “Those are our most successful participants because they just thrive in that structured environment.”

Kim Hegvik

All three agree that drug court is an appropriate alternative to imprisoning individuals. “They are not going to get this type of treatment in a prison,” Hendrickson said. “They may get some treatment in a locked facility, but then they get let out, then what happens?” Hegvik added. “We can get them to change their friends, improve family life, get a job, contribute to society, do all of those things long term. If you put them in the sterile environment of a prison, they are going to come right back to that exact environment before they went to prison and nothing’s changed,” said Burkhartsmeier.

The rewards of the job are what keep Hegvik, Hendrickson and Burkhartsmeier hungry for more. “There is not one shining example, but, it can be the small things,” Hegvik said. “Like, the first time they buy toilet paper, some people have never done that before. Or when someone gets custody of their kids back, that’s huge. There is not one specific reward just because of the small rewards that lead up to the ultimate reward for us, which is a participant graduating.”

Hendrickson says his most rewarding times are those graduations. “We get these people when they are at rock bottom,” he said. “We as a drug court team walk with them every day and by the time they graduate, to know they have a secure job, that they have their own place and that a family reunification process has begun because kids were taken away because of their addictions is amazing. To see their kids in that courtroom, smiling, while their mom or dad graduates, saying they love them and that they are proud of them, that’s what gets us every time. There is nothing more rewarding than that situation. At the end of the day, without this program, that reunification process never happens.”

Whether or not the participant completes the program, there is progress made in one way or another. However, the lives that have been changed since the program’s inception in 2000 is astronomical. It will continue to make an impact on those battling addictions and will hopefully help to eliminate substance abuse dependencies entirely.

10 Quick Facts About Drug Court

  1. Since Juvenile Court’s inception in 2000, the State of North Dakota has seen 677 juveniles come through the program.
  2. As of 2017, Fargo leads the state with 88 juveniles completing the Juvenile Drug Court Program since May of 2000.
  3. There are currently 5 Adult Drug Court Programs in the State, Fargo has 2, Minot, Bismarck, and Grand Forks being the other cities offering the program.
  4. The Adult Drug Court Program in Fargo has successfully graduated 323 participants since its inception in 2003.
  5. In 2017, 31% of participants were employed at entry into the program and 62% of participants were employed when exiting the Adult Drug Court Program in Fargo.
  6. There are currently 52 participants in the Adult Drug Court Program in Fargo.
  7. It costs approximately $40,000 to incarcerate one individual per year in the State Penitentiary System.
  8. In 2017, 22 participants in the Adult Drug Court Program in Fargo paid $53,618 in fines, court fees and restitution.
  9. In 2017, 46 of 52 participants in the Adult Drug Court Program in Fargo were not criminally arrested while in the program.
  10. To place a juvenile participant in drug court, it costs the tax payer roughly $15-20 a day. Compare that to $200 a day to incarcerate the participant (depending on the facility).

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Written by Nolan P. Schmidt

Nolan is the Editor of Fargo Monthly. Schmidt is also the Editor of Spotlight Media's Bison Illustrated and Future Farmer publications. He is originally from Bismarck, N.D. and is a proud graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead.

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