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A Judge's View: Without legislative support, Minnesota's successful treatment courts at risk

I recently experienced one of the proudest moments of my 13-year career as a district court judge. During a ceremony at the St. Louis County Courthouse, I had the great honor of presiding over a ceremony naming our local DWI court program as one of the most effective DWI courts in the nation ("Duluth DWI court earns national honor," May 4). With this distinction, Duluth will now serve as a model for communities across the country that are looking to establish their own DWI court program to combat the deadly epidemic of impaired driving.

Shaun R. FloerkeThe success of our DWI court in Duluth is representative of the broader success Minnesota has achieved by embracing the treatment court model. Treatment courts take criminal offenders who struggle with chemical addiction or mental health issues and use close monitoring and strong judicial oversight to ensure they complete treatment, maintain their sobriety, and leave the justice system with the tools they need to be productive, law-abiding citizens.

The Duluth DWI court program works by targeting high-risk, repeat DWI offenders. By addressing the root cause of their repeat offenses — their underlying chemical dependency — the program serves to protect the public's safety by significantly reducing the chance these offenders will continue driving impaired.

Study after study has shown the effectiveness of this approach. Treatment courts have been proven to reduce recidivism and lead to better outcomes for program participants.

By reducing crime and incarceration rates, these programs save money for taxpayers, too. A recent independent evaluation of Minnesota's DWI courts showed taxpayers saved nearly $5,000 per offender by having the person participate in DWI court rather than go through a traditional court process.

Put simply: these cost-effective programs are life-changing — and life-saving.

I've seen this firsthand here in Duluth. I've seen men and women come into our DWI court after numerous impaired-driving offenses. So often, these are people who have wrestled with alcoholism and who could never overcome their disease on their own, despite numerous attempts. Their addiction led to them putting their lives, and the lives of others, at risk by drunk driving.

Through DWI court, I've seen these offenders, under careful judicial and community supervision, finally getting the help they need. I've seen offenders leave the program with a job, a place to live, and a newfound sobriety. I've seen families previously torn apart by alcoholism finally reunited in a safe and sober household. I've seen these offenders come back to the court years later, not as re-offenders but to visit the staff that run DWI court to thank them for helping them change their lives. I've heard about their jobs, their small businesses, their children and grandchildren, and their long-term health and wellness.

The success we've had in Duluth is being replicated in communities across the state. Today there are treatment courts in nearly 80 percent of Minnesota counties, and every Minnesotan is benefitting from the work these programs do to battle addiction and reduce long-term costs in our justice system.

However, despite the incredible success of these programs — and the savings they provide taxpayers — Minnesota's treatment courts are at risk. Many of these programs were founded on short-term grants; others are relying on uncertain funding sources to stay open. Without a long-term funding solution, we risk seeing many of these programs close down when their current funding expires.

Given everything we know about the life-changing, life-saving impact of these programs, it would be a tragedy to see this model begin to disappear in communities across our state.

This legislative session, the Minnesota Judicial Branch has brought forward a budget request that would ensure stable, predictable funding for all of Minnesota's treatment courts and ensure these programs can continue to combat drug addiction and improve outcomes in our justice system. Gov. Mark Dayton has embraced this funding request. To date, the Legislature has largely ignored it.

I strongly encourage our local lawmakers, and the entire Legislature, to support Minnesota's treatment courts by ensuring adequate funding for these programs this session. With more and more Minnesotans dying at the hands of drunk drivers and more and more Minnesotans getting trapped by opioid addiction, we should be building on the success of our treatment courts, not putting them at risk.

The Honorable Shaun R. Floerke is a district court judge in Minnesota's Sixth Judicial District. He is chambered in the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth, and he is the presiding judge of the South St. Louis County DWI Court.