BILLINGS — A portion of Governor Greg Gianforte’s proposed Montana budget is aimed at bolstering drug and alcohol treatment, both inside and outside prison walls. He demonstrated his agenda on his first day in office by having Yellowstone County District Court Judge Mary Jane Knisley administer the oath of office. Then, at the top of his speech, he verbally backed up his choice when he thanked the judge.
“Since 2010, you have built a successful treatment court that helps people suffering with drug and alcohol addictions rebuild their lives and become productive members of our communities," Gianforte said.
Knisely said the request was a welcome surprise. Both the judge and governor have a strong mutual interest in combating crime.
“What I know for certain is that the governor believes in recovery and alternatives to incarceration,“ said Knisely.
It's a personal passion for Knisley, who presides over two of the five treatment courts in Yellowstone County. The courts focus on sobriety, recovery, and future stability, as an alternative to jail or even prison. It’s a model that’s designed to put participants in front of judges and program facilitators consistently and provide accolades and incentives to help them recover.
The judge says although treatment courts aren’t perfect, their success is proven. She points to one study that found three years after graduation, 96% of the highest risk felony drug and alcohol-impaired graduates had no arrests for DUI.
“That's huge compared to traditional criminal justice stats with that population,” said Knisely.
The governor’s proposed Drug Court budget asks for $634,00 over two years. His budget director, Kurt Alme, says part of that funding will go to absorb six federally funded startup drug courts, in which funding expires after this year. The Gianforte Family Foundation has contributed to those startup programs in the past.
Other treatment dollars will be funded with a portion of the tobacco tax settlement and taxes on recreational marijuana in Montana.
Amanda Boyer was raised in Fort Belknap and is a veteran. Her life has been filled with trauma, and she says she always felt alone. “In 2018, I ran into somebody. And, by the grace of God, I didn't kill anybody or myself,” she said.
Today, after two years, she’s nearing graduation, with more than 500 confirmed days of sobriety, and says Knisely gave her grace and an incredible opportunity to change her life. But she’s quick to point out, it’s not easy, and she’s watched people go to jail.
“I really had to attack that shame. And really set boundaries," said Boyer.
“It's like boot camp on the ground,” said Knisely. Constant drug tests, multiple groups and treatments, getting and holding down a job as a felon- the participants are held accountable as they find rides and fork out money to help pay for the process.
Montana does not have the judicial resources or the judges to have a drug court in every community. There are currently more than 40 treatment courts across the state, but Knisely says they’re doing work well beyond their county borders. Even pre-Covid-19, the courts used tele-health to connect like participants with like services and the right treatment, and Knisely says the pandemic has just pushed the program further.
Right now she said the courts are participating in a teleservice project with the Center for Court Innovation. She says it connects treatment courts and participants from more rural Montana areas where they can’t receive that continuum of treatment.
Knisley and Boyer agree that it’s the strong local, state, and federal drug court resources and connections that make this work.
“The opposite of addiction is connection,” said Boyer, and “When you invest in people, I think you invest in community.”
Knisley says the cost-benefit of that connection can be measured. She says she’s watched and tracked the money for 20 years and says the cost of a participant going through drug court is approximately $5,000.
“When you look at the cost of incarceration, and you recognize that nearly everyone gets out of incarceration at some point and they have not had significant treatment while being incarcerated. The cost savings is astronomical," she said.
Knisely says she never forgets the crime, but says the courts provide dignity that some of these individuals have never received.
“For example, veterans are a very deserving population, that restoring honor, restoring dignity is something that they immediately appreciate... The recidivism is low, you’re making a change, a lasting change for families. A lasting change for participants,” Knisely said.
A change, that’s saving lives.
“I’ve been through a lot of trauma and you can always change your life,” Boyer said.
After this program and what it's given back to her, she said she wants to give back to people, “so they don't ever feel alone.”