Changing Lives—and the Justice Process—through Collaborative Tribe-County Treatment Courts

Cass County (Minnesota) District Court Judge John Smith first approached Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Tribal Court Judge Korey Wahwassuck to discuss starting a joint jurisdiction court to address the increasing number of DWIs among their constituents. At the collaboration’s outset, they thought there would be a model to follow—little did they know they would be creating the model themselves. The Cass County/Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Joint Jurisdiction Wellness Court Program began in 2006, and on July 19, 2007, the Cass County and Leech Lake Tribal courts signed a Joint Powers Agreement, setting out three overarching goals:

  1. Improve access to justice.
  2. Administer justice for effective results.
  3. Foster public trust, accountability, and impartiality.

In Minnesota, Public Law 280 gives state courts the authority to prosecute criminal cases against tribal members for crimes that occur within the tribe’s jurisdiction. Many of the people facing DWI charges in the Cass County court prior to the wellness court’s establishment were tribal members, reflecting both the geography of the jurisdiction and ongoing systemic and structural disparities affecting the rates of substance use and justice contact among American Indians. Because tribal member appearances were so frequent, Judge Smith recognized he needed the tribe involved to gain participant’s trust and engagement with the wellness court model.

Now in its second decade of operations, the Cass County/Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Wellness Court is getting results, notes Bryan Harris, probation agent associated with the DWI court. Program outcome data show 60 percent fewer arrests after program entry compared to individuals who went through traditional court processes, and no new felony arrests 2 years after program entry. According to Harris, they have a 65 percent graduation rate.

Based on the success of this first joint jurisdiction specialty court, in which both a district court judge and a tribal court judge hear DWI cases together for both tribal and non-tribal members, the neighboring county of Itasca signed an agreement with the Leech Lake Band to handle drug-related and DWI offenses. Both courts now have memorandums of understanding that guide the day-to-day operations of the courts. Today, Judge Megan Treuer, Deputy Chief Judge for the Leech Lake Tribal Courts sits on both wellness courts, and Judge Jana Austad, a Ninth Judicial District Court judge, collaborates with Judge Treuer to conduct the Cass County/Leech Lake DWI court.

The two judges meet before DWI court to discuss cases with a multidisciplinary team that includes probation officers, defense attorneys, prosecutors, treatment providers (from both the county and the tribe), and the program coordinator. They do this, and conduct the court session itself, over closed- circuit TV, which allows participants to attend in either the state or tribal court. It is a 90-minute drive from one end of Cass County to the other, so this is especially helpful for those who have lost their driver’s license due to a DWI offense, Judge Austad notes, or who face other transportation challenges.

In the DWI court neither judge sits on a bench or wears a robe. Instead, they honor the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe tradition of problem solving in a circle by sitting with the individuals facing charges and talking to them. “I hope that has helped create trust and for folks to understand that we’re really interested in how they are doing as human beings,” Judge Austad says. “That’s what I think moves things forward, ultimately, because it’s really difficult for people to be open and honest about addiction, particularly in a court system.”

The program’s high graduation rate and comparatively low incidence of recidivism would indicate that these efforts are working, even in the face of serious headwinds. “Our tribal council has declared a state of emergency due to our addiction epidemics—addiction to alcohol and drugs,” Judge Treuer says. “We have great disparity rates in addiction among our community members, as well as significant disparity rates for involvement in the criminal justice system.” These underpinning realities make the wellness courts’ work even more critical and its strong outcomes still more notable.

But statistics on graduations and rearrests only tell part of the story. Individual successes abound; from graduates experiencing recovery, regaining custody of their children, to becoming leaders in their community. “One of the very first participants to enter the program back in 2006 is a friend of mine who I grew up with,” Judge Treuer recounts. “He was really struggling in his early 20s and ended up with a felony DWI, and he’s been sober ever since he participated in our program.”

Having the tribe involved empowers people to connect to their community in new ways, Judge Treuer believes. “Some of our community meetings and events that are culturally based enable us to connect individual participants to other community leaders or possible mentors,” she explains. “Our addiction program has sweat lodges on a weekly basis, so we’re able to send people if that’s something that would help them.”

Cultural understanding extends beyond individual participants. “One of the things that’s unique in a joint jurisdiction program is an opportunity for the county to work collaboratively with the tribe,” Judge Austad says. “I would say the relationship between the county and the tribe is much stronger because of the program.” Even her own understanding has improved. “Things that might have been frustrating to me before, I just understand better,” Judge Austad remarks. “I have good, open communication with Judge Treuer that has allowed me to be teachable and to increase sensitivity to things that I just didn’t know about.”

Judge Austad acknowledges that some defendants might decide to serve time rather than become involved in the wellness court program, with its requirement for treatment participation and sobriety testing. “But if you want to get sober, wellness court is the way to do it, because there are a whole lot of people who care about how you are doing,” Judge Austad says. “There’s a high level of physical and emotional accountability as you build relationships.”

And for those wanting to start a joint jurisdiction court, there is now a manual to follow. Judges Smith and Wahwassuck contributed to the publication, Joint Jurisdiction Courts: A Manual for Developing Tribal, Local, State & Federal Justice Collaborations, showing future programs the way.



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