Photo by Chris Rogers Zarna Polus celebrated over 600 days of sobriety and graduated drug court last month.

County funding will keep drug court open




Zarna Polus had lost custody of her son, racked up a handful of felony convictions, and had stayed prison sentences hanging over her head. “All of that was the stuff that was going on because of the underlying chemical issue,” Winona County District Court Judge Nancy Buytendorp said. After another charge in 2014, Judge Mary Leahy very nearly sent Polus to jail, but Leahy offered Polus one last chance and sentenced her to Winona County Drug Court instead. “You had some ups and downs. You had some relapses, which is the nature of the beast … but in the end, you prevailed,” Leahy told Polus. After multiple trips to rehab, nearly three years of intensive monitoring and community service, escaping homelessness by securing supportive housing at the recently built Hiawatha Bluffs Living, and maintaining her sobriety for nearly two years, Polus graduated from drug court late last month and celebrated with her family. She and her brother, Jeremy Polus, stood hand-in-hand in front of the courtroom. “This is a big deal for me because I get my sister back,” he said.

Polus is one of Winona County Drug Court’s 21 success stories out of 52 participants over the last five years. Yesterday, Buytendorp, Sheriff Ron Ganrude, and County Attorney Karin Sonneman urged the Winona County Board to dedicate local tax dollars to avert a shutdown of the program. The County Board voted 4-1 to approve the $42,000 request to fund drug court through the end of this year. It is the first time local tax dollars have funded drug court. In a memo to the County Board, Sonneman wrote that the drug court program will seek $84,000 from the county’s 2018 budget.


What is drug court?

Winona County Drug Court is essentially an intensive form of probation for nonviolent drug offenders. Participants come down to the sheriff’s office for regular urine tests and wear drug-detecting patches to prove their sobriety, take part in chemical dependency treatment and recovery support groups, get jobs or perform community service, and have regular check-ins with Judge Buytendorp.

Call it babysitting, but drug courts use daily and weekly check-ins and a system of immediate consequences and rewards for participants’ behavior to reform participants. At a check-in last month, Buytendorp called participants down one-by-one to see if they had followed the rules and to chat about how their lives are going. Audience members applauded when participants announced how long they have been sober. When one participant told Buytendorp she was three hours short of her mandated 24 hours of community service this week, Buytendorp told her, “OK, you’ll have to make that up next week.” Buytendorp waived another participant’s $50 monthly fee for drug court as a reward for earnestly praising one of his peers during a group session. When a third participant did not show up for his check-in, Buytendorp issued a warrant for his arrest.

There was standing room only for Polus’ graduation. “I’m not sure what happened, but I think the real Zarna wanted to come out,” Buytendorp said of Polus’ transformation. “You started getting serious about your life without drugs and alcohol,” the judge added.

Polus said that other people’s support made the difference. “I can see today how much love I have from all of you, and I can see because of you loving me how much I’ve learned about myself. And I’m so grateful for all of that,” she said. Jeremy Polus reflected on the change in his sister: “Really, she loves herself again, and that’s the best part.”


State funding up in the air

Winona County Drug Court has been funded by a state grant scheduled to end on June 30. Winona County District Court Administrator Wendy Van Duyne told the County Board that she had expected to receive funding for drug court from state budget bills passed this spring, but while the legislature did give the judicial branch funding for drug courts, it was unclear whether the Minnesota Judicial Council would include Winona County when it divvies up that money later this summer. The legislature allocated $590 million to Minnesota district courts over the next two years, including $3.4 million specifically earmarked for treatment courts.

Van Duyne explained that because of its historic reliance on grants, the Winona County Drug Court is not on a list of established Minnesota drug courts regularly funded by the judicial council. She told the County Board she is working on getting the Winona County Drug Court on that list. Sonneman said that if the judicial council does allocate funds, they could be used instead of the county’s $42,000 stopgap funding. “We don’t know what the state is going to do, so we’re asking the county to help us out and pay for the $42,000 we need to keep going,” Sonneman said.

With the exception of commissioner Marcia Ward, no one questioned the value of the Winona County Drug Court, but commissioner Steve Jacob voted against the funding request, saying that it was premature to offer local tax dollars for the program before getting a definitive answer on whether state funding would be available. He proposed tabling the request until there was more information on the status of state funding.

“Instead of becoming the last resort, we’ve become the first resort,” Jacob said of county funding. “‘Don’t even find out if the state is going to fund the [program], just bring it to the County Board.’” 

“I’d be supportive of this regardless of the source of funding because it makes that big of a difference,” Winona County Board Chair Jim Pomeroy stated. “I see the drug court as a very valuable resource in the community. I’ve seen the effects of their work. I’ve seen people completely transformed. It’s beyond incredible. And when I look at the mission of the county, this program fits in with that mission. It fits it like a glove.”


Are criminal justice reforms worth local taxes?

It is not the first time the Winona County Board has been asked to fund criminal justice reforms, and it likely will not be the last. A raft of grant-funded programs have helped the Winona County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) reduce recidivism (re-offending) and shrink the local jail population, but those grants do not last forever. The CARE Program, which helps inmates leaving jail successfully transition into the community, sought temporary stopgap funding from county tax coffers in 2014, when federal grants dried up. A state grant last fall continued the program, but when that runs out in 2018, CARE staff expect that local tax dollars will be the only funding option to continue the program.

Also last fall, the CJCC won a $250,000 federal grant to steer more citizens toward mental health care and avoid making the local jail the “dumping grounds” for underserved mental health problems. The grant funded crisis intervention and “mental health first aid” training for officers, teleconferencing equipment for jail nurses, and a new jail intake worker, whose job it is to ensure proper mental health screening and better mental health care for incoming inmates. The grant funding for that program runs out in 2019.

At a meeting this spring, CARE Program Coordinator Latrisha Green said state and federal grants are seed money to get programs off the ground and demonstrate their effectiveness. The CARE Program is no longer a seed; it’s a tree, she said, and the county needs to step up and start funding it.

Funding programs like these is the right thing to do for local citizens and families, and they will save money, commissioner Marie Kovecsi said.

Lots of national research suggests that these programs save governments money. There is a wealth of research showing that drug courts across the U.S. tend to save money by reducing recidivism rates and avoiding the cost of future incarceration. Jailing people is expensive. Winona County spends $111 per inmate per day, according to a 2016 Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) report. The state itself spends an average of $92 per inmate per day or $34,000 per inmate per year. Supporters argue that by treating the root causes of criminal behavior — such as chemical dependency and mental illness — and by making the corrections system more rehabilitative, governments will spend less on incarceration in the long run and communities will benefit from less crime.

There have been few studies of whether local versions of these programs are saving money in Winona County. The CARE Program showed that its participants spent far fewer days in jail after completing the program than they did in the years before entering the program. 

There have not been any local studies of the cost effectiveness of the Winona County Drug Court, but many local leaders support it. Buytendorp, Sonneman, and Ganrude all said that drug court is one of the most successful programs they have seen in their careers and that it saves money by reducing recidivism and child protection cases. “I was very skeptical,” Ganrude said of drug court’s beginning in 2012. “I would say now, five years later, six year later, it’s a great program.” It keeps people from coming back to jail, and saves money, he stated. “One of the reasons we started drug court was to help the people we saw over and over again,” Sonneman added.

Buytendorp pointed out that a surge of foster care placements related to parents’ synthetic drug use have cost the county millions over recent years, not including the cost of attorneys working on child protection cases. Drug court reduces child protection cases, saving the county money, she said. 

If these participants were not in drug court, they would be in jail or prison, Winona County Drug Court Coordinator Carin Hyter stated. If drug court keeps even one person out of prison for two years, it has nearly paid for itself, she pointed out.

Asked how the county should evaluate whether anti-recidivism programs are cost effective, Winona County Administrator Ken Fritz said that relying on national and state studies is often the best method. In most cases, the cost of conducting a local study will probably outweigh the benefits, Fritz said.

Winona County has benefitted from years of state and federal grants for drug court and other criminal justice programs, Kovecsi stated. She added, “It’s time for us to step up and help fund this.”

County staff are already beginning work on the 2018 budget. The County Board will likely review a first draft of the budget in August.


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