The Winona County court system ushered in a new approach to substance abuse crimes Tuesday, as the first drug court cases began. Third District Judge Nancy Buytendorp presided over the entry of two young Winona men, who have prior drug convictions, into the program. Drug court is a proven program that foregoes traditional hard time and offers individualized help.
Drug Court of Winona County (DCWC) is the third program of its kind introduced in the area. There are similar courts in Wabasha, Olmsted, and La Crosse counties. A federal grant of $349,000 was awarded to Winona County earlier this year to help defray the cost of the DCWC program for three years.
It is also hoped the program will reduce the estimated $250,000 in the county budget to cover the cost of sending offenders to neighboring jail facilities when the Winona County jail is full.
DCWC is focused on assessing individual goals to help the offender recover. "Drug courts are all about collaboration," Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman said. "There are people involved from all different agencies, public and private, that work toward enhancing relationships."
A drug court team consisting of nine law enforcement, mental health, and preventative service officials was established to help each offender to create a comprehensive case plan for a transition into a life of sobriety.
"We have all been through intensive training, and met every week for the past nine months to get to this point," Buytendorp said. "We've read manuals, studied procedures, all to be a part of a method that has been proven successful."
How it works
DCWC is not a way for drug offenders to escape serious charges. Rather, the goal of the program is to reduce recidivism among offenders through continuous and intense supervision.
Participants in the program cannot be violent offenders, and must plead guilty to their crimes. Once offenders are accepted into the program, they must follow a comprehensive case plan, which includes weekly drug court hearings, submission to 12 random drug tests a month, meeting with a drug court team member twice a week, and working a minimum of 40 hours per month on the case plan.
If the offender adheres to all stipulations in the case plan for the duration of the program, small incentives are offered. Buytendorp gave details of the "fishbowls" that contain "prizes" for program participants.
Each week at drug court, Buytendorp will select a piece of paper from a fishbowl on which is written a reward, which could be a can of soda, a small food item, or a $5 coupon that could be used to help cover costs of the offender's court fees. An offender who fails to adhere to the plan or fails a drug test will be taken into custody and placed either on a 48-hour hold or incarcerated until the next drug court date.
Drug court team members work closely with each individual on a one-to-one basis, offer help with addiction issues, and essentially cheer the person on through the entire process.
"Every time we say the Pledge [of Allegiance] we talk about justice for all," Sonneman said. "Many people have worked very hard for this for a long time. It's just an amazing day today. And, it's about saving lives and saving families."
Sonneman said once the program is fully functional, she anticipates working with 20 participants at a time for a minimum of 18 months.