Drug courts, seen as alternative to costly incarceration, face budget cuts

A year ago, 37-year-old Chris Lillico had hit rock bottom. It was September 2015 when police caught him with a meth pipe and a baggie lined with methamphetamine residue.He was arrested, went to court and sat the next three months in the county jail.

Jay Knudson, a judicial referee, presides at a recent hearing in Grand Forks County Court. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

A year ago, 37-year-old Chris Lillico had hit rock bottom. It was September 2015 when police caught him with a meth pipe and a baggie lined with methamphetamine residue.

He was arrested, went to court and sat the next three months in the county jail. It was a wake-up call for the Grand Forks father and laborer. He had a choice to make: more jail time or a permanent lifestyle change.

Lillico had heard about the drug court program and asked his public defender if he might be a candidate. As a first-time drug offender, he was accepted and in March he started the program and his path to a clean life.

Drug court is a yearlong program broken into four phases. The first phase involved meeting with a judge Monday evenings, followed by two hours of treatment counseling. Tuesday was another two hours of counseling, with a repeat on Thursday.

Once a week, a probation officer shows up at his workplace to ask him to pee in a cup.


"You've gotta want it to be able to get through it," Lillico told the Herald last week. If you mess up, it means automatic jail time.

Lillico did slip once when he went to a bar and he ended up with another three days in jail. Today, he says he's determined he won't go back. Too many failures can boot you out of drug court and land you behind bars.

"They try to get you back from the hole you're in to a stable place," Lillico said.

And just more than a year after his arrest, some things are looking up. On Thursday, Lillico got his driver's license back.

In Grand Forks, the opportunity for nonviolent, first-time felons like Lillico to turn their lives around and get back on their feet through drug court is going away.

In a special session in August, the North Dakota Legislature made budget cuts that will result in the Northeast Judicial District losing its judicial referee position in 2017 - a move that will put more on the plate of district court judges, leaving them without time to administer drug court.

Role of the referee

As a judicial referee, Jay Knudson is a busy man. He presides over child custody cases, civil cases and traffic cases. When juvenile offenders come up, and the state has to make a decision quickly, it's often Knudson who hears the case. Thursdays are particularly full: In the morning, he hears child support cases; in the afternoons, he presides over traffic court. He's often on the bench all day.


Yet soon, he could be out of a job.

The state's economic downturn pressured lawmakers to keep the state out of debt by passing a $310 million budget fix intended to bridge the gap until the 2017 session.

The cuts were made quickly and seen by many as necessary. But the impact falls on all sectors of government, including the judicial branch, which had its general fund appropriation slashed by $7.37 million for the 2015-2017 biennium. After the cuts, the state Supreme Court sent out an order announcing two of the state's seven judicial referee positions would have to be dropped for 2017, including the position at the Northeast Judicial District, which serves Grand Forks. The salary for a judicial referee in North Dakota, including benefits, is $150,264.

"By any fair measure, the short-term cuts the judiciary is being forced to enforce will have long-term consequences," said State Sen. Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks.

Judicial referees were instituted with an act of the North Dakota Legislature in 1985. They are required to be licensed to practice law in the state and must be appointed by a district judge. In many ways, the referees are judges. They preside over initial appearances, civil and juvenile cases, but not over criminal trials. Currently, the state has seven judicial referees, also known as magistrates, serving in its largest district courts. Fargo has two; Bismarck has two; Bottineau, Grand Forks and Minot each have one. When the cuts go into effect, Grand Forks and Bottineau will lose their judicial referees.

Statewide, the judicial system will need to eliminate about 40 positions, according to Sally Holewa, North Dakota's state court administrator. Positions still are being determined, but Holewa said deputy clerks and probation officers statewide will be reduced.

Court delays

Northeast Judicial District State's Attorney David Jones fears the cuts will cause a delay throughout the court. In 2014, the district had five judges and two referees. Beginning in 2017, it will have five judges, depending on when the governor appoints the open bench seat, for which Knudson has applied.


"The real impact is we're going to have to be patient," Jones said. "Because we're funneling more into less."

Local attorney and UND law professor Ward Johnson III told the Herald that Knudson's role is extremely important in maintaining a well-functioning court.

"It allows the state district court judges to focus on the serious cases," he said.

District Judge Jon Jensen said his office still will get to all the cases, and address each case thoroughly, but he said the process will become more lengthy without a judicial referee.

"We're not going to cut any corners," Jensen said.

The ripple effect

District judges already were handling a full caseload with seven judicial officers two years ago and, if anything, Jensen said caseloads have increased since then. With judges spread thin, the district court has decided to halt applications for its adult and juvenile drug courts. Jensen said the programs are time-intensive for judges, who meet with drug court participants either once a week or bimonthly depending on which phase of the program they are in.

"We simply don't have time," Jensen said.


North Dakota was one of the first states to adopt drug courts after they were pioneered in Florida in the 1990s. The Grand Forks and Fargo juvenile drug courts both were begun on May 1, 2000, according to Holewa. The first adult drug court was started in Bismarck in 2001. The state currently has five adult drug courts, two of which are in Fargo, and six juvenile drug courts. Wahpeton has the state's only DUI court. Drug court participants must be first-time felons; should they complete the program, their charges are dismissed.

Adult drug court in Grand Forks launched in 2008. Since then, 60 people successfully have completed the program, and 70 have been discharged, according to John Gourde, who coordinates the adult drug court programs for the North Dakota Department of Corrections.

Success in drug court is relative. Gourde and Jones both said that it's important to keep in mind the nature of the drug and alcohol addictions people are trying to overcome. Even if someone fails out of the program, they might experience their longest period of sobriety in years.

"We are diverting people who would potentially be receiving county jail or state prison time," Gourde said.

Impact on costs

The average cost of yearlong state incarceration for an individual is $41,460.35, according to North Dakota Department of Corrections spokesperson Michelle Linster.

Gourde said graduates of drug court have a lower risk of recidivism than those who are incarcerated.

There are currently 16 people enrolled in adult drug court in Grand Forks under the supervision of coordinator and probation officer Christy Thelen. Thelen said the Grand Forks drug court requires participation from all parties including judges and treatment counselors at the Northeast Human Services Center. The most important factor is how much people want to get better.


"When the participant is ready to be involved, they do quite well," Thelen said. "It's kind of satisfying to see people find success."

Grand Forks might not be the only district to lose its drug court as a result of the cuts.

"It's still up in the air, but it's been proposed by most of the districts to cut their drug court to preserve their resources," Holewa said.

Jensen told the Herald the district court is not permanently shutting the door on drug court, but it intends to re-examine the issue in six to eight months. For now, the program is not taking new applications.

"We are taking our budget cuts at the expense of our young people's future," Johnson said.

Grand Forks is the only region to halt its drug court applications for now, but state judiciary officials say others could follow.

"It's still up in the air, but it's been proposed by most of the districts to cut their drug court to preserve their resources," Holewa said.

And while these cuts are considered temporary until the oil market recovers and with it, the state's coffers, some authorities worry it could be permanent.


"Once these programs are gone, how difficult is it going to be to bring it back?" Jones wondered.

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