Recently I visited Treatment Court in Le Sueur County. I saw men and women charged with nonviolent drug crimes. I saw them struggling with their addictions. I saw the immense collateral damage to their parents, children and loved ones.
But in that quiet courtroom I also saw a great deal of hope. I saw a hardworking judge — tough but compassionate — who cared deeply about each defendant. I saw prosecutors, defense lawyers, probation officers and law enforcement working together. I saw that most defendants were following the strict conditions of their sentences: urine tests, treatment, mental health counseling, employment and education. They knew that the alternative was prison. Simply put: I saw lives being saved.
Minnesota is a national leader in the treatment of chemical dependency. We need all of that expertise now more than ever because, like many other states, we’re in the midst of an opioid crisis. So it’s very odd — or, as our chief justice puts it, “deeply troubling” — that, so far, the Legislature has not committed to provide adequate funding for treatment courts requested by the judicial branch and fully supported by the governor.
We know that treatment courts not only save lives, but they save money. In the last five years, three major studies of Minnesota’s treatment courts have shown that they significantly reduce crime, cut incarceration and related costs, improve mental health, and help addicts become employed, support their kids and pay taxes. National studies agree. Indeed, treatment courts are one of the most heavily studied and evaluated tools we have in the criminal-justice system. The results are excellent.
Minnesota’s treatment courts are nationally recognized. Just this week, the St. Louis County district court was honored as having one of the four best DWI courts in the nation (out of more than 700). Our treatment courts also focus on drug addiction (both adult and juvenile), mental health, family dependency, veterans and tribal wellness. Prosecutors, defense lawyers and cops support treatment courts because they know they work.
Unfortunately, Minnesota’s treatment courts are funded by an unpredictable hodgepodge of sources. Relying on temporary grants, they’re held together with the judicial equivalent of chewing gum and baling wire. Based on the proven success of treatment courts, the judicial branch needs — and now seeks — long-term financial stability.
An independent branch of government, the judicial branch has requested $3.4 million for treatment courts over the two-year budget period. The governor, a strong supporter of chemical-dependency treatment, fully supports our request. But we’ve made little progress at the Legislature. Recently, the conference committee recommended only $200,000, less than 6 percent of what is needed.
Judges truly hope that Minnesota’s treatment courts, and the rest of the judiciary’s budget request, will not become a bargaining chip in the ongoing negotiations between the Legislature and the governor. All Minnesotans should be united in supporting treatment for our families and friends. After all, addiction has no political party.
Justice David Lillehaug was appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2013 and was elected in 2014. He was U.S. attorney for the District of Minnesota from 1994 to 1998.