CASS LAKE, Minn. - There were countless rounds of applause at the Leech Lake Tribal Justice Center here Thursday, as, one by one, individuals stood and informed a crowd of people the hundreds of days they've stayed sober.
The act was a symbol of success for the multi-jurisdiction Wellness Courts, celebrating their 10 year anniversary, and the participants who went through the program. Consisting of multi-jurisdictional and multi-disciplinary teams, the system is comprised of two post-conviction and post-sentencing DWI/drug courts.
The program started in 2006 when the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe partnered with Cass County to create the first, joint-government wellness court in the country. In 2007, the tribe also established a second collaborative wellness court with Itasca County. Today, the courts operate with teams made up of representatives from tribal, county, state and other agencies.
"There were drug court models and therapeutic court models at the time, but none of them operated with cooperative governments," said Judge John Smith, a retired justice on the Minnesota Court of Appeals. "When we started looking for a model to base the program off of, we found out that we were the model."
According to Leech Lake Tribal Court Judge Megan Treuer, the process of the wellness court begins when an individual is charged criminally with a drug offense in Itasca County or DWI in Cass County. Then, if they meet certain criteria, they have the option of participating in the program.
"They're interviewed in the jail and identified early on," said Judge Korey Wahwassuck, Ninth District judge in Itasca County. "Getting people into and accessing resources immediately, that's a bit of an incentive to get people into the program."
Since beginning the courts, the program has earned numerous accolades, including the Harvard Honoring Nations Award, the National Association of Drug Court Professional Cultural Proficiency Courage Award and a nomination for the United Nations Public Service Award.
"Success breeds success," Smith said. "Now people believe in the program, so it makes it easier for the judges and the people in it, because they know it works."
As a result of the program's success, Wahwassuck said the courts are helping to improve the community as it means less individuals entering prisons.
"I believe that whether you're a tribal member or non-Indian, if there's something missing inside, a person may try to fill that with drugs or alcohol," Wahwassuck said. "Going to prison doesn't really help people to heal inside and until they have that, they'll never be able to have that in the long run."
"A certain segment of the population may have a problem with an addiction, that doesn't necessarily make them a criminal," Smith said. "So, what we try to do is find a mix between treating that addiction and working with the legal system so that they can come out as better people, rather than sending them to prison where they come out worse."