Montana Public Radio

Report Finds Montana Needs Funding To Expand Drug Courts

Jan 3, 2019

When the roughly 10 percent of adult Montanans with a substance-use disorder commit a crime, the state lacks enough drug courts to help them stay out of incarceration and navigate treatment. That’s according to a new report on Montana treatment courts released Thursday.

Most, about 90 percent, of those Montanas with a substance-use disorder aren’t receiving treatment for their illness.

“There are a lot of people out there who are struggling with this and haven't been able to access treatment services," says Aaron Wernham, the CEO of the Montana Healthcare Foundation, which paid for the new report on Montana’s drug courts.

“This is really about getting those people the treatment they need, which has the dual benefits of both helping that person get healthier and get their illness under control and helping reduce the costs to the criminal justice system.”

Evidence suggests that once people successfully go through drug court they’re less likely to get caught in the cycle of the justice system so there will be fewer arrests and court cases, and fewer days in jail, prison or on supervision.

Reducing the number of people in jail or prison could lift some of the burden currently weighing on the state prison and some county detention facilities that contract with the state, which also face overcrowding.

Treatment courts, sometimes referred to as drug courts, attempt to offer people with a substance-use disorder a path to get their life back together after being charged with a crime. People in drug court can stay out of jail or prison, allowing them to stay with their family, pay their fees, get a job and get treatment.

“If all goes well they graduate and they’re substance free and have a productive life," says Beth McLaughlin, the administrator for the Montana Supreme Court, which along with the Montana Healthcare Foundation, requested the report.

The look at these kinds of courts in Montana was done by Oregon-based NPC Research. It found that Montana needs funding to expand treatment courts in the state along with adopting better practices to stabilize those courts that already do exist.

“Based on this report we’re only serving about a third of what the need is.”

McLaughlin says at any given moment there are about than 550 people in Montana in drug court. But the new report found that around 1,600 people in the state would benefit from going through the system.

“And when you’re talking about the needs, you’re really talking about offenders who have a criminal issue and a substance use disorder," McLaughlin says. "So these are high-risk, high-need people."

McLaughlin says the new report sets a long-term vision for improving drug courts in Montana, but in the short term, specifically heading into the 2019 Legislative session, the goal is to help the two of the state’s 28 drug courts that are running out of money and risk shutting down.

McLaughlin says an adult treatment court in Lake County and a family treatment court in Lewis and Clark County currently rely on federal funding that expires in 2020.