Are South Dakota's drug courts working? - KSFY News - Sioux Falls, SD News, Weather, Sports

Are South Dakota's drug courts working?

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 Finding a solution to the states growing prison population is part of South Dakota's criminal justice reform bill.

 Right now -- the bill sits on the Governor Dennis Daugaard's desk awaiting his signature.

 One of the key elements of the bill involves relying more on what are called drug courts. The program already exists but we wanted to know if investing more state resources in drug courts would be a good idea or not.

 Former drug user Alicia Lien has been sober for nearly 600 days. In 2011 Alicia faced a choice of seven years in prison or drug court -- she chose a path to recovery. "It's turned my life around a lot. I walked in this program with no self-esteem. I lost my family pretty much, now I have my family, I got their respect, their love. I've got my kids." The role of drug court is not just to get users to kick the habit -- but to break old habits and create new ones. "It's time consuming, four meetings a week, three UA's, treatment, aftercare, plus work. I mean you have to get a sponsor. There's a lot of things that you need to do. And you have to see your probation officer, come to drug court every week."

 It may seem like a get out of jail free card to some but many people in law enforcement believe drug courts are a better solution than throwing non-violent criminals behind bars.

 "The benefits are not just to them but we have seen families restored through the program. We see people who are now contributing members to the community, holding full-time jobs." Sioux Falls Police Captain Greg Vandekamp believes the drug court program also makes our community a safer place to live. "Every time you get somebody out of the business and out of that habit of drug addiction, it is safer. Because along with each drug addiction goes all the other things, the family violence, the stealing, we have a lot of crime association with drugs."

 While some may think drug users should be locked up others in law enforcement say a prison sentence doesn't treat the addiction. Jake VanDerzee is a probation officer. "If they just go to jail, they keep coming back. Programs like drug court are there to try to correct the problem, help them through that so they don't keep coming back."

 Anyone who thinks drug court is the easy way out should ask Judge Pat Riepel. "Hmm, come watch us every Wednesday at 8:45 and see what they have to do. It's a difficult program. They have to answer to a lot of people." Judge Riepel oversees drug court in Minnehaha County. She sees people first hand -- turn their lives around and away from drugs. "We've worked with these people from day one, and I think collectively they have almost two thousand days of sobriety. We have three graduates. All are employed, all are working. They've just done well."

 Cora Martin is one of the first participants in drug court. She's paying it forward by helping others which also helps pay herself back by sticking to a routine. "That was the best thing that happened since I graduated because it got me right back where I need to be. It also made me realize that meeting and helping others is what got me through to the point of graduation with no relapses." Making herself vulnerable and opening up emotionally to others in drug court was difficult for Cora. "Because all the people that I was comfortable with since I was 19 years old are people I thought were my friends. Basically what they are, are people that you use with. You use each other. You hurt each other. You do a lot of stupid things. And that's the life that I thought was a normal life for me."

 But now Cora has a normal life -- she's drug free -- has a job -- and she's sitting down for lunch with her daughter, Serenity Robillard. "We're having lunch. It's my birthday, so this is all huge, like normal setting. And nice." Serenity knows all too well incarceration is probably the best wake-up call to getting sober. Serenity admits to using drugs herself and would like to get help before it's too late. "I do want it now. I don't want to go to jail. I don't want my mom to be embarrassed by some of the things I choose to do."

 Serenity admires her mom's success in going through drug court and living a clean and sober life. But she says the time wasn't right for the two of them to do it together as a family. "I wasn't ready to quit. That was my decision, but I wasn't for sure going to go sit in that drug court with my mom and be rooting for her when I'm high. That's the best thing for her right now to be involved in that program and I want her to keep succeeding."

 And so far Cora is succeeding -- with more than 360 days sober since she entered the drug court program.

 Some of the graduation requirements include being clean and sober for at least a year...having a full-time job or social security disability and completing drug treatment and relapse prevention programs.

 Also all court costs and fines must be paid in full.

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