“We Do It Because It Works”

Why the Wyoming Drug Courts Need a New Home

  • Published In: Columns
  • Last Updated: Nov 25, 2022

By Cassie Craven

Special to the Wyoming Truth  

The drug treatment court program in Wyoming has changed the lives of convicted individuals by giving them a second shot at life. Usually, their families, health and dignity are gone by the time they show up at drug court. Often, they are repeat offenders who have been convicted of a variety of offenses, but not  necessarily a drug sale or use. Instead, maybe a lifetime of drug use led them to a litany of theft charges and disorderly conduct citations. Perhaps they were dealers or purchasers. Either way, this is their last shot at a sober life outside of custody.

Drug court participants are assigned to a judge and team of attorneys, mental health professionals and case workers who help them establish the life structure necessary to turn around their patterns and break down criminal thinking in lieu of serving out their jail sentences. Of those who can complete the program, their lives are forever changed. I was honored to serve as an attorney for the drug court in Laramie County for a few months; I’ve seen its miracles and the good folks who run it firsthand. Crowded dockets and repeat offenders plague Wyoming. Treatment courts work, because they cut off the cycle of relapse on supervision, which drains resources, and they target the fundamental problem through the use of best practices, training and effective quality control processes.

In mid-September,  the Joint Judiciary Committee of the Wyoming Legislature met to discuss moving treatment court authority from the Wyoming Department of Health to the judicial branch. I believe this proposed change will provide the necessary shift to manage these courts logistically and financially in the long term. This issue will be heard at the legislative session in February. Here is what you need to know.

There are 20 treatment courts in 14 counties across Wyoming. According to Kurt Zunker, the Laramie County Drug Court and DUI Court Director, “The great majority of funding currently comes from the Wyoming Department of Health…Funding is determined through a grant process, which requires all programs to have a 25% match of either in-kind funds, or cash funds. The match also must be local, meaning you can’t match state or federal dollars to your department of health funds.”  

But uncertain funding promotes uncertain outcomes. We must prioritize these successful programs because they have what it takes to make the difference and save lives. I’ve seen it myself. It’s worth the money.  

But money is in short supply, and the funding of drug courts is largely based on grants to run local programs. Proponents of new legislation suggested that treatment courts will do better under judicial branch supervision.

Wyoming should join the majority of states who handle drug court management in this way, Chief Justice Kate M. Fox said during the hearing. She pointed to Chief Justice Loretta Rush of Indiana, quoting her as saying, “courts have become the government emergency room for society’s worst afflictions: substance abuse, mental health, domestic violence and homelessness.” Fox said the judicial branch is adapting to that reality, and the full utilization of treatment courts is part of that adjustment.

Ben Burningham, Wyoming Supreme Court legal staff, contextualized the policy shift, explaining that  “…in 2020, Wyoming led the nation in suicide death rates.” And we know that “mental health goes hand in hand with substance abuse,” Burningham said. He continued that Wyoming ranks 48th in overall mental health and “our courts become the de facto mental health system…Incarceration should not be the path of first resort to access care.” He testified that Wyoming spends $44,734 per inmate per year on institutional costs.

Judge Bryan Christensen, a circuit court judge for eight-and-a-half years in Natrona County, served in the district attorney’s office for nearly three decades. Christensen began decades ago with other visionaries seeking initial planning grants. In 2001, Wyoming Statute §5-10-101 started the budget for the state to support these programs, but they were created before that with the piloted county-by-county funding.  Christensen put these cases in perspective, explaining that addiction has too long been a revolving door to justice. The system would lock offenders up awhile, and they’d return to the same lifestyle. The front-line judges and attorneys noticed this, Christensen testified. Drug courts are proactively trying to change behaviors and make these individuals productive members of society. “It is not a cure, but it is not a cure just to go back the way we were,” he said.

Despite this and the significant time involved in these programs, “we do it because it works. We are trying to change behavior,” Christensen said. Right now, fentanyl is crushing our communities and stealing the lives of Wyomingites.

Drug courts address the root causes and allow more effectiveness in the treatment of mental health. “There is obviously a connection,” Judge Christensen stated. Department of Health Director Stefan Johansson admitted that we need to “better serve” the folks that are a part of these programs.

In an interview with the Wyoming Truth, Laramie County Commissioner Gunnar Malm (R-Cheyenne), said that “Drug courts are valuable programs that unfortunately can fall by the wayside in a large department where it is not the ultimate focus of that department. The fentanyl crisis places this in the category of urgent need.”

I do not believe we should wait for a crisis to act appropriately. But since it is here, we better answer. Lives depend on it. I vividly remember the day a drug court graduate told me, “Thank you. You saved my life.” That individual, like so many other successful participants, has reconnected with his family and improved his health. He now believes that he can exist in a world while sober.  

But that transformation was never because of us. It was because of him. All we did was create the framework and walk side by side through the darkness, because we knew that the therapeutic sessions, counseling, meetings and cognitive redevelopment would shed light on the previously dark world he’d been trapped in since childhood. These high-level techniques are delivered in a sustainable, locally-based setting. We have to keep changing the behaviors that change the world. We must keep doing the work of drug court, because it works.

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