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Drugs seized as evidence by Mitchell police. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)

New drug court starts in Mitchell

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Joel Amick isn’t exactly a free man, but he’s got a chance. Since his arrest in July for a parole violation, Amick had been held at Mike Durfee State Prison in Springfield.

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Earlier this week, when he went to court for the parole violation, the judge could have sent Amick back to prison. Instead, the judge enrolled Amick in a new addiction treatment program called James Valley Drug Court. It’s an intensely supervised experience overseen by a team of professionals, including a judge, attorneys, treatment counselors, court services officers and law enforcement.

Amick will leave the prison and start his drug court sentence as a resident of Stepping Stones, an in-patient halfway house in Mitchell for drug and alcohol addicts. He will report to drug court regularly and undergo supervision and frequent drug-and-alcohol testing for as long as he’s in the program, possibly up to three years.

“I’m blessed by the opportunity I got,” Amick told a judge Thursday, the first day of the new drug court.

South Dakota’s first drug court was the Northern Hills Drug Court in Sturgis, which has been in operation since 2007. Drug or driving-under-the-influence courts in Pierre, Sioux Falls, Yankton and Aberdeen also existed prior to a major statewide initiative this year to reform parts of the criminal justice system. Among the reform’s aims are lowering corrections costs and prison populations by placing nonviolent, substance-abusing offenders in intensive community treatment programs instead of prison.

The reform initiative authorized new drug or DUI courts in Mitchell, Sioux Falls and Rapid City. Codington County, which has Watertown as its county seat, plans to start a drug court next year.

Tim Moon is the drug court services officer and Nicki Peterson is the drug court coordinator for James Valley Drug Court, located in the Davison County Courthouse. Moon previously worked with juvenile offenders and Peterson was a dispatcher for the Mitchell Department of Public Safety.

“I’m mostly interested in trying out a new program,” Peterson said. “It’ll be good for Mitchell.”

The James Valley Drug Court will cover a 25-mile radius around Mitchell, which includes all of Davison and Hanson counties, and parts of Sanborn, Miner, McCook, Hutchinson, Douglas and Aurora counties. The coverage will be light at first, focusing on local offenders, depending on what officials decide the system can handle, Moon said. He said the goal is to handle 15 to 20 clients for now.

Although it’s called James Valley “Drug” Court, people can be sentenced to it for any substance-abuse-related felony crimes, including alcohol, illegal drugs and prescription drugs. The crimes could directly involve the illegal use of a controlled substance, for example, but could also include crimes such as stealing money to pay for a substance addiction.

Getting sentenced

During circuit court Tuesday in Mitchell, the James Valley Drug Court received its first two clients.

Their first day in drug court was Thursday, in front of Judge Tami Bern, of Yankton. Drug court is held at 1 p.m. every Thursday at the courthouse in Mitchell and is open to the public.

Amick, 27, of Letcher, was sentenced Tuesday to drug court after his fourth drunken driving offense in 10 years. On July 27, he drove drunk through yards in rural Davison County and crashed his vehicle through a fence.

Amick had been on probation in 2009 after his third drunken driving offense, but violated it and received further probation and jail time. In 2011, his probation was extended after he tested positive for marijuana. In November 2012, he was sentenced to two years in prison for failure to complete rehabilitation treatment and for drinking. He was paroled earlier this year and was still on parole when he was arrested for drunken driving and sent to prison to await court proceedings.

Aside from Judge Tim Bjorkman sentencing him to drug court, Amick must also pay restitution and lost his driver’s license for five years. Amick will have a five-year suspended prison term hanging over his head throughout drug court. He will be on probation for three years, during which he must successfully complete drug court or face the possibility of going back to prison.

During circuit court Tuesday, when Amick was sent to drug court, Amick’s attorney Doug Dailey said, “I think this will be a good way to try to help Joel in fighting his addictions with alcohol and drugs.”

Chelsey Lutz, 21, of Mitchell, was also sentenced to drug court. She was originally sentenced in 2010 for possession of marijuana as a high school student. In May, she admitted to smoking marijuana while on probation and failing to pay fines and costs associated with the 2010 case. She has already served 112 days in jail. The drug court team can use her remaining jail time as a possible punishment for any failure to comply with the rules of the drug court program.

During circuit court Tuesday, Lutz’s attorney, Donna Bucher — who is also on the local drug court team — said, “This opportunity to participate in drug court will be harder than anything she has ever done in her life.”

Lutz said during Tuesday’s court proceeding that she’s ready to be a mom to her little girl and be a better person.

First day

At drug court Thursday, offenders walked in, sat down and waited for the judge. One major difference from regular court: At the end of Thursday’s drug court session, everyone in attendance clapped their hands in applause as a show of support for the clients.

Judge Tami Bern, from Yankton, presided over James Valley Drug Court’s first day Thursday. Judge Gordon Swanson, who will be the regular judge for the court, was attending judicial college and could not be present.

Bern brought Amick and Lutz forward one at a time and asked about their lives, their addictions, why they’ve been in the court system and what they think of drug court. It all took about 15 minutes.

“Things are going to be busy this week. It’s overwhelming at first,” Bern said to both. “It’s going to hit you like a ton of bricks. The team will be a resource for you to get things lined up.”

Despite it being open to the public, drug court is not like regular and open adult court, said Greg Sattizahn, South Dakota’s state court administrator.

“It is really viewed as a treatment court,” he said. “The best analogy is that it’d be kind of like, as part of a sentence, a person is referred to a drug addiction counselor.”

He said once a client is in drug court, by federal law, their identity is protected by the court because some items discussed during drug court sessions could include mental health or substance abuse evaluations, medical issues and other confidential records.

Yet offenders get sent to drug court during circuit court proceedings where their names are used openly, and their faces are seen by everyone in attendance. Because of that, The Daily Republic — which had already reported on the circuit court proceedings — chose to use the names of offenders in this story. There will be some parts of drug court, like drug court team meetings, that are not open to the public or media.

“The intent of Congress in designing and implementing these statutes was to assure participants that their personal information would not be released to the public,” Sattizahn wrote in an email to the newspaper. “With this assurance, more substance abusers participate in treatment.”

The team

Eight people have agreed to be on the drug court team: Judge Swanson, Davison County Deputy State’s Attorney Bob O’Keefe, defense attorney Donna Bucher, chemical dependency counselor Stephanie Brooks, Dakota Counseling Institute mental health counselor Christy Schroder, Mitchell Police Officer Dean Knippling, Moon and Peterson. Stepping Stones Clinical Supervisor Janae Oteken and Davison County Deputy Chief of Court Services Ron Freeman have extensive experience in helping individuals in the court system who have addictions. Moon said they act as support and resource personnel for the drug court team.

The team works to keep clients in line by doing drug and alcohol testing, making sure they have jobs and housing, and making sure they attend addiction meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous. The team meets each week prior to drug court. They go over the clients’ files and discuss their activities from the past week.

O’Keefe said drug court will be a good fit for the area. The goal of James Valley Drug Court is to rehabilitate drug and alcohol abusers who are committing crimes related to their abuse issues and enable them to live a crime-free and drug-free lifestyle.

“We won’t constantly be seeing the same person over and over again in criminal court,” O’Keefe said, referring to the hoped-for effectiveness of drug court. “Basically it will reduce the cost of corrections and will get people living normal, drug-free lives instead of getting in trouble and going back to prison.”

Drug court is partly funded by state government. But it is also paid for through client fees for their treatment costs, O’Keefe said. Any rewards clients receive — like gift certificates — for good behavior or progress they’ve made are donated by local businesses. Court services is also in the process of creating a system in which people in the community can donate to help fund the program, O’Keefe said.

O’Keefe is confident the drug court approach will work in Mitchell, because 25 years of research proves it has worked in every other state that has tried it, he said.

Plumage, the state drug court coordinator, said the state drug court held meetings with community officials to determine whether the area needed the service, had time for it and was interested.

“James Valley Drug Court will answer a need to treat high-risk addicted offenders,” Plumage said.

“In my observations in working with the team, I think there’s a good solid core group who are very invested and determined to make this work. There’s the buy-in there. There’s support there. Everybody is on board.”

Oteken, of Stepping Stones, said supervision is key in helping those who are serious about kicking addiction.

“Drug court separates the people serious about getting help from the people who aren’t,” she said.

Oteken said the intense supervision by eight team members will give clients admitted to drug court a stable support system needed to succeed. The team will hold each client accountable for staying sober and following probation rules.

“There’s no chance for these people to fall through the cracks,” she said. “Some people don’t have a support system outside their treatment. I think this will be a huge difference from an average person going through drug and alcohol treatment.”

The program is set to start off relatively slow in terms of the number of clients, which Oteken said is a good idea. In order to have the program do well, it needs clients succeeding at all stages — beginning, middle and end.

“A person just starting can look at someone who is ready to graduate and say to themselves, ‘If they can do it, so can I,’ ” Oteken said. “On the other side, the person who is graduating can turn to the beginner and say, ‘I was just like you.’ They can help each other. It will give them hope.”

Oteken said the drug court program gives offenders the opportunity to get the help they need, while working and being with their families instead of being in prison.

“The community will benefit from this,” she said.

Consideration, acceptance

To be considered for drug court, offenders must apply through their attorney. The judge and team will review the application. The state’s attorney and sentencing judge must agree the client is a good candidate for drug court. The sentencing judge has the final say whether the client enters drug court.

Clients must be nonviolent offenders who have a clinically diagnosed substance addiction.

Drug court is part of a probation sentence. If a client does not successfully participate in and complete drug court, it is a violation of that person’s probation. The drug court team could then impose sanctions like jail time, stricter curfews, community service or termination from the program and placement back in circuit court.

If clients do well, they can be rewarded with something as simple as applause or by receiving donated items from the community. The drug court team has worked with the business community to get gift certificates for gas or a movie.

A client is placed in a drug court program for no more than three years, to complete three phases based on their treatment plan. Frequent and random alcohol and drug tests are done as a part of helping keep clients sober. Moon will also conduct field visits at clients’ school, home or work.

For at least the first three months, a client will attend weekly drug court meetings in front of the judge — in this case Gordon Swanson — to update him and the drug court team on his or her progress.

During that period, the client must participate and comply with a probation agreement, which includes attending addiction counseling meetings, abiding by curfews and doing community service. The client must also get a sponsor and attend support group meetings, submit to three random drug tests per week and do work training or education. The client must also maintain 60 days of sobriety, Moon said, and have no negative law enforcement contact.

“Keeping planners and journals of their days is important,” Moon said.

Both are tools to help clients keep track of what’s expected of them. The planner is used to track daily appointments and employment information, and to record payments of costs, fines and restitution and community service hours completed. Clients are supposed to use the journals to record successes and failures they have each day.

Once a phase is complete, the client can apply for the next phase.

In phase two, the client will complete at least six months with bi-weekly drug court appointments, 90 days of sobriety and the same conditions as phase one.

In phase three, the client completes at least nine months with monthly drug court appointments, six months of sobriety and must comply with the expectations of probation conditions.

If a client completes the entire program, the client is eligible to be petitioned to standard probation.

If the client needs extra supervision beyond the timeframe set for any of the three phases, the judge will decide when it’s appropriate for the client to be discharged from the program within the three-year period. If clients do not complete drug court or are terminated from the program, they are not permitted to return.

“This is an amazing idea,” Oteken said. “It’s not a new concept where chemically dependent people need to be supervised. However, by having a team looking after somebody, they’re likely to succeed.”

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