A different person today
LITCHFIELD -- Chase Frieze has known Shane Baker for his entire adult life. Now, he's not sure he will ever see him again. That's a good thing. Frieze graduated Jan. 4 from the Eighth Judicial District's Drug Treatment Court. As a teen and young ...
LITCHFIELD - Chase Frieze has known Shane Baker for his entire adult life. Now, he's not sure he will ever see him again.
That's a good thing.
Frieze graduated Jan. 4 from the Eighth Judicial District's Drug Treatment Court. As a teen and young adult, he was in and out of Kandiyohi County courtrooms, often facing Baker, the Kandiyohi County Attorney, as the prosecuting attorney for drug and theft charges.
Now, after nearly three years of drug court, 23-year-old Frieze is a different person. He has been sober for more than 1,000 days. He earned his GED, got married, and has a secure, supportive job.
"I probably wouldn't've still been sober if not for the program," Frieze told Judge Stephanie Beckman last week in front of a packed Meeker County courtroom of social workers, probation officers, attorneys and fellow drug court participants.
His wife, Shantell, held onto their 9-month-old son Teegan in the audience, who looked up at his father with big, bright eyes.
Frieze, of rural New London, became the fourth person to graduate from the relatively new program's central district, which includes Kandiyohi and Meeker counties. The drug court in the Eighth Judicial District began in July 2014 with 11 participants, and has grown to 30 participants across eight participating counties, divided into three assignment areas.
The northern assignment area consists of Grant, Traverse, Wilkin and Stevens counties, the southern assignment area is Swift and Chippewa counties and the central assignment area covers Meeker and Kandiyohi counties. Five other counties in the judicial district do not participate.
The drug court approach is strikingly different. Its hearings are held in the same courtrooms many participants shuffled in and out of over the years. But typical courtrooms don't have this much smiling, this much laughter, or this much tough love.
Instead of a formal reading of the case file number and charges for each participant, drug court often opens with, "Hey, how have you been?"
"We address not just being sober, but living sober," said Karon White, Eighth Judicial District Drug Court Coordinator.
Last week, Judge Beckman heard updates from participants at all stages of sobriety about work, children and even pets.
Beckman was also there to encourage and give the truth, however harsh it may be. Participants spilled their frustrations with honesty to the judge.
"You got this," she told one participant, who was anxious about finding a job.
The drug court is more than just interaction between the judge and the participants. Participants appear every two weeks with the same group of people. They listen to each other's drug court testimony. They heckle each other between proceedings. But they also chime in encouragement when needed.
"They do watch out for each other," White said.
"It sucks walking in there for the first time," Frieze said. But now, after nearly three years, "It's like family," he added.
Three years ago, he had nearly finished drug treatment when he received a big packet in the mail about the program, which was just starting up in the region.
The offer: He could serve his sentence, nearly 90 months in jail on two charges. Or, he could go to drug court, and stay sober.
"I know if I would've went to prison ... I would've went right back to meth," Frieze said. "The road I was taking, it was no good."
For some, the group is a vital support system. It's not always stone-cold serious. Personality plays a big role.
Beckman described Frieze as having a goofy, joking personality, a puzzle piece in the group dynamic.
"You're the life of the party, so we're gonna miss you," she told him at his Jan. 4 graduation.
"I'm not coming back," he responded, to laughter.
While Frieze said he feels like he has matured, he did not want to lose that joking part of his personality.
"If I couldn't joke about my addiction, I wasn't ready to quit, is the way I look at it," he said. "I went from doing what I was doing to being a family person and having a full-time job."
Frieze is done with drug court, but he still has to finish probation. He has big goals for his young family, including buying a house. He wants to finish probation with those in mind.
After 208 urinalysis tests and 56 court appearances, "I just wanna be free," he said. He's hoping to finish probation in a year, but could have as many as five years left.
Kandiyohi County's previous drug court system opened in 2007, but was shuttered just months later due to lack of funding.
The multi-county approach of the current court is unique in the state, where most drug courts are confined to one county.
Locally, outside of court, participants meet with probation officers and counselors, and most undergo inpatient drug treatment.
There are nearly 1,500 adult drug courts across the country, according to the National Institute of Justice. The institute's research suggests that drug courts can lead to less recidivism, saving courts an average of $5,680 to $6,208 per offender overall.
In the Eighth Judicial District Drug Court, 41 people were referred last year. Less than half were accepted, most denied for failing to follow through with the initial screening stage, according to the court's year-end report.
Acceptance is half the battle. Frieze says it's a tough program to finish. While many can avoid extensive prison sentences through drug court, it comes with strict guidelines. Participants must obey curfews as early as 8 p.m. and undergo frequent urine tests.
"I don't like being told what to do, at all, so I had to accept that," he said.
Five people voluntarily withdrew from the program last year, and three were terminated for noncompliance.
For those who make it, the program can be worth the trouble. Frieze thinks so.
A week after his graduation, a few toys are scattered in the living room of a home he shares with his parents, wife and son. His "dream truck" sits in his driveway. He has three big dogs and a tiny Chihuahua.
He and his wife just obtained new paperwork. They're going to apply for a home loan.