The Clay-Becker County Treatment Court “had a very unique year this last year,” Becker County District Judge Gretchen Thilmony told Becker County commissioners on May 18. “There were no national standards on how to do treatment courts during a pandemic, but I think we’ve done a really good job of keeping our treatment courts running well.”

Becker County specialty courts have changed a bit recently. They used to include the Becker-Clay County Drug Court, the Becker-Clay County Veterans Treatment Court, and the Becker County-White Earth Nation DWI Court.

But because of low numbers enrolling in the Veterans Court, it has been merged with Drug Court, Thilmony said. “We are now considered one Treatment Court with two tracks -- drugs and veterans,” she said.

Becker County District Judge Gretchen Thilmony (Tribune file photo)
Becker County District Judge Gretchen Thilmony (Tribune file photo)

Specialty courts are flexible, problem-solving programs for qualifying non-violent offenders with alcohol and drug problems. One secret of their success is close collaboration between judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, treatment providers, probation officers, law enforcement, and others -- including educational and vocational experts and community leaders.

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Treatment Court involves ongoing chemical dependency treatment, frequent drug testing, and regular mandatory check-ins at court.

By everyone working together, the judge is able to keep a close eye on a participant's progress toward sobriety and recovery, and the court has a range of tools to keep defendants moving in the right direction, including “immediate sanctions and incentives to foster behavior change,” according to the county’s website.

During the pandemic, online Zoom meetings were used instead of in-person meetings, and some elements of that remote strategy worked so well they will likely become a permanent part of Treatment Court.

Having all defendants on at the same time for Zoom meetings works well, Thilmony said. “Participants support each other the same way as they do in person,” she said.

Treatment court graduation ceremonies held over Zoom allowed friends and family from far away to participate, and that was a definite plus for the graduates, she added.

“One time, we had so many people on the screen we had to have a couple screens, you couldn’t see everyone,” Thilmony said. The ability for people to attend graduations via Zoom will likely be incorporated into future events, which will be a hybrid of in-person and Zoom attendance, she said.

Since it started in 2007, 48 participants have been discharged and 104 have successfully graduated from the Becker-Clay Drug Court program, Thilmony said. “Of those 104, all are employed, have their driver’s licenses, and have been clean and sober for at least a year,” she said.

There are currently 23 participants in Becker County Treatment Court (20 to 27 participants is the average at any given time), which includes combined Drug Court and Veterans Court participants.

The program has a 21% recidivism rate among graduates, a percentage most treatment centers would love to attain. The national recidivism rate for drug offenders outside of drug court is about 50% after five years, and 60% after 10 years, according to Don Kautzmann, coordinator of the Clay-Becker Treatment Court, who also reported to the Becker County Board May 18.

Of the 13 military veterans who agreed to participate in Veterans Court since its inception, six failed out of the program and seven graduated. None of the graduates reoffended, “a 100% success rate on our Veterans Court, I’m happy to say,” Kautzmann said.

The Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs puts the number of veterans in the state at about 327,000. As of March 1 in Minnesota, 5.6% of people in jail or prison were veterans, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The figure was about 8% nationally.

Support for the Treatment Court from Becker County and Clay County was instrumental in getting grant funding, Kautzmann told commissioners.

“Support has been invaluable from the Becker County Board, not just with funding, but with grant applications,” he added. “You were the only one with support from your counties, that’s why you got the grant -- so county support has been crucial to the success of the program,” Kautzmann said.

Clay-Becker Treatment Court has a budget of about $200,000 year, with most funding coming from the state.

Becker County Board Chairman Barry Nelson noted that Clay County funds the Treatment Court with $30,000 a year, while Becker County provides $10,000 a year, even though the court is heavily used in Becker County District Court. “I wouldn’t mind bumping up ours by $5,000,” Nelson said.

“We do appreciate your backing and support,” Thilmony said. “It’s something that's really important for our community members. It's just the alternative to district court, where we don’t want them to come back -- we want them to succeed in life.”

Commissioners like to see people succeed, but the program is also good for the budget. “Keeping them out of jail is very cost-effective for the county,” Nelson said.

Thilmony is a big part of the treatment court’s success, said Becker County Attorney Brian McDonald. “Judge Thilmony treats every participant like a person,” he said. “She’s great at holding them accountable, but just the way she talks to every participant says a lot about her.”