Second Chance for First Time Drug Charges
How does the Blackfeet tribal court system deal with drug offenses? The Blackfeet nation has developed a new approach for first-time drug offenders. The major goal of this new alternative court is rehabilitation. Don Mallo, intake counselor, explains that the alternative court gives drug offenders “the chance to still stay in their community, lets them keep their families; they can keep their jobs.” This alternative court is the first adult drug court in Montana, operating since January 1998. According to Mallo, other reservations throughout the United States have come to observe the Blackfeet’s new approach, hoping to develop similar solutions.
Blackfeet tribal court building
The alternative court is designed for younger adults (above 18), who are first time offenders. Usually they are still in school, with jobs, or still part of their family. The alternative court focuses on drug users who have potential to turn their life around. Instead of punishment, the alternative court stresses rehabilitation and attempts to keep people sober for one year, which will ultimately help them stay sober after that.
Requirements of the alternative court include random drug screening for all participants of the program. Also those offenders involved in the program are required to get their GED or a job. After a successful year in the alternative court, charges are dropped, and they no longer have a criminal record.
Program participants who test positive for a drug do not go to jail, but they do pay a $10 fine and must come back for another drug screening. The second time they test positive, they must serve several weekends in jail; plus they have to pay for the drug screening. If they test positive a third time, they have to spend thirty days in jail.
Participants who complete twelve clean drug tests move on to the next phase of the four-phase program. The first two phases take place within the alternative court. In phase three they only have to see the judge twice a month, and in phase four they see the judge once a month.
The alternative court has attempted to rehabilitate 31 adults. Out of that 31, nine completed the program with staff approval. Out of that nine, seven are still sober. Five did not complete the program, and one was killed in a car wreck. Several others left the reservation and now have outstanding warrants for their arrest. If they come back on the reservation, they will be arrested.
Possession of drugs, DUI, or possession of paraphernalia are the most common crimes among those people who are referred to the alternative court. More serious criminals such as known drug dealers or people picked up for drug dealing are not accepted. Nor does the alternative court accept people who have charges of violence of any kind.
Although methamphetamines are not the drug of choice for most program participants, Mallo stated, “We have just started to see within the past two years people addicted to methamphetamines. Methampetamines are going to be a major problem within the next couple of years.”
The Blackfeet alternative court is a relatively new approach; it is one of three mentor drug courts for Native Americans in the United States. Mallo conveyed his confidence in the alternative court by saying, “I believe that the alternative court system is going to be the most effective way to work with drug and alcohol addicts. Unlike treatment…after that they come out and they have no supervision; they have nothing; they just go back into the same environment. Here we monitor them for one year, longer if it takes that.”
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