WEST BEND — The social and economic costs of the opioid crisis are too immense to ignore, Circuit Court Judge Todd Martens said, which is why he decided to be the presiding judge over Washington County’s drug court cases. While it will not completely solve the problem, he said, having an alternative route through court should help.
“When people aren’t on drugs, they take care of their kids, they are employed and pay their bills, they don’t steal from their family,” Martens said. “Those negative collateral consequences of drug addiction go away when a person get better, so that’s what we’re trying to help them do.”
The two pillars of drug court are increasing access to treatment and holding offenders accountable, he said, so while he cannot ignore the crimes committed, he can take a different approach.
In comparison to traditional cases in Washington County Circuit Court, Martens said those cases in drug court require him to use motivational interviewing techniques.
“For example, if someone has been sober for a month, I would ask them how their life has improved in that time and have a conversation about that,” he said.
This reinforces the positives of sobriety in the defendant’s mind and can encourage the decision to stay sober. It is not easy, Martens said; some people have been abusing drugs for more than a decade and it has become the only life they know.
“It’s important to treat them like human beings and talk to them; give praise for what’s going well in their lives,” he said, “talk about whether they’re motivated to continued to change and hold them accountable by asking them to explain their behaviors when there’s slips.”
There are incentives for good behavior; shaking the defendant’s hand, giving verbal praise, concrete offerings like sobriety coins, Martens said, all have been shown to help people in recovery. If someone misses treatment or has a positive drug screen, there are others available for a judge to administer, from a reprimand to jail.
“Rather than yelling at a person or wagging your finger, which is tempting to do sometimes in response to behavior, we respond to behaviors in different ways,” he said. “The crux is you spend time talking person to person rather than looking down at them from the bench.”
The incentives and repercussions differ from cases outside of drug court, he said, but in examining preexisting drug courts across the country and state, he has learned what garners positive results.
“Studies of treatment courts suggest that individuals who have regular contact with a judge throughout their treatment are less likely to reoffend and more likely to stay sober and have a robust recovery,” Martens said.
Outside drug court and Elevate’s treatment and diversion program, recidivism is high, he said, showing the need for a diversion from the standard process of the criminal justice system.
“There’s a tremendous need for alternatives here to the traditional model of being convicted and placed on probation, which only about 20 percent of people successfully complete, and then going back to prison for the other 80 percent,” Martens said. “To the extent that you can help some of those people who would otherwise be going to prison, everyone wins.”
There are three ways an offender can have their case heard in Martens’ drug treatment court. If a defendant is on probation for another offense and is not complying with the rules of their supervision so they would otherwise go to prison, drug court can be offered. The second way is if a person has a pending narcotics possession charge and Elevate evaluates them as high risk, high need. The last is for individuals in the opioid treatment and diversion program who are a high, not moderate risk, struggling with sobriety.
The person must also live in the county, be charged with specific offenses and assessed as high-risk, high-need individuals.
“This is not a cure-all, but I think it’s a necessary step in the right direction in light of the devastation that’s been caused by addiction in our community over the last 15 years or so,” Martens said.
As both drug court and the treatment and diversion program progress, he expects to see increases in employment and reunification with children and family, decreases in court and prison and medial costs associated with abuse eliminated.
“You don’t become an addict in 28 days so it’s unreasonable to think a person could also be cured in 28 days,” Martens said. “It’s a longer process than that and requires more tools than we have traditionally had at our disposal in the criminal justice system.”
For now the court will remain in the pilot phase and continue to look for individuals who could benefit from an alternate path to sobriety, he said.