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Sobriety earns praise, even applause in drug court hearings

WILLMAR -- A handful of people facing felony drug charges stood, one by one, in front of Judge Stephanie Beckman on Wednesday at the Kandiyohi County Courthouse, with a group of social workers, attorneys, probation officers and others watching th...

WILLMAR - A handful of people facing felony drug charges stood, one by one,  in front of Judge Stephanie Beckman on Wednesday at the Kandiyohi County Courthouse, with a group of social workers, attorneys, probation officers and others watching the proceedings.
Any criminal court proceeding might begin in a similar way, but this was drug court - participants expressed their personal struggles and successes, there were moments of applause and words of praise and encouragement from the judge.
“Someone today said you’re our gold star,” Beckman said to one participant Wednesday. “You’ve worked very hard and deserve a standing ovation. We are all very proud of you and we wanted you to know that.”
Beckman instructed the woman to choose a prize from a bucket and the group applauded her on 125 days of being sober.
The Eighth Judicial District’s new drug court began in July. It operates within seven of the district’s 13 counties, including Kandiyohi County. Beckman is lead judge for Kandiyohi and Meeker counties.
The goal is to enhance public safety, ensure participant accountability and reduce costs to society, according to the Minnesota Judicial Branch. Supporters say drug court helps addicts obtain treatment rather than shuffling them off to jail, while still holding them accountable for their crimes.
Twice-monthly review hearings such as the one on Wednesday are used to assess the progress of drug court participants.
The drug court program includes four stages, each providing more freedom for participants, Karon White, coordinator for the Eighth Judicial District drug court, said during a later interview with the Tribune.  White said there are currently 11 participants in District 8 drug court, with five more currently in the application process.
Jason King, 31, has been making progress on earning a college degree and getting his driver’s license back. King said he has battled addiction for many years, his struggles first starting when he was introduced to methamphetamine at 11 years of age.
“From there, it’s just been a spiral of addiction, crime and dropping out of school,” King said during a Tribune interview after Wednesday’s review hearing. “It’s led me to dark, lonely places.”
He said his attorney introduced him to the drug court program, which has given him hope for recovery.
“I was a guy who was written off, but things are beginning to change,” King said. “So far the experience has been a great one.”
King said he has been in and out of treatment programs and prison, but said drug court is different because he can directly communicate with Judge Beckman and other officials.
He said the open lines of communication have improved his relationship with law enforcement. While he is currently studying business, he said he hopes to ultimately reach out to those struggling with addictions.
“My long-term goal is to help other suffering addicts,” King said.
Offenders with a history of addiction and non-violent crimes are eligible to be referred to drug court. The program runs parallel with a person’s criminal charges.
In addition to attending review hearings every two weeks, participants must submit to drug testing and meet with probation officers and addiction counselors. White said the purpose of drug court is to help offenders overcome their addictions and become independent.
While the first drug court participant will not graduate from the program for several months, two participants within the district have already reached the second of four stages.
“I think this is the direction specialty courts are going in,” White said. “I’m really excited to see the progress of drug court and for more participants.”
Participants during Wednesday’s hearing were both congratulated for their progress and also held accountable for negative choices.
“My level of anger is a major problem,” one participant said.
While the participant has made progress with treatment of her drug addiction, she has been having problems with anger outbursts.
“Your homework for next time is to write three things you can do until next time instead of lashing out,” Beckman said.
As Wednesday’s review hearing came to a close, Beckman welcomed a woman who had just entered the program.
“Your past is your past and makes you who you are today,” Beckman said. “I care why you want to be in drug court this time.”

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