“The day I got my DUI.I could’ve run home,” said Carl Wells. “I could’ve run. And I’d still be running today if I wasn’t in this great program. I sat there in my truck in tears, crying. I said this is it. This is enough. I said I’m going to end up killing somebody or killing myself.”
“It’s the first time I’ve been at peace. I feel like I’m in a safe place,” said Shay LaVallie.
“This treatment court has allowed me to find myself, to guide me in which direction I want to go and where I want to be in my life,” said James Guardipee. “It’s not punishment. It’s discipline.”
“If you want the easy way out, you should just go to jail and do your time because that, believe it or not, is the easy way out,” said Cascade County District Judge Greg Pinski. “This is the hard way. Because it involves responsibility. It involves accountability. It involves changing your life.”
Wells, LaVallie and Guardipee are three of six participants in the flagship group for a new facet of Cascade County’s Treatment Court system overseen by Judge Pinski, the Great Falls Tribune reported.
Along with Tex Damon, John Gross and Josh Parocai, these men were the first to graduate Native American Treatment Court at a ceremony held last week at the Hilton Garden Inn in Great Falls.
A $300,000 grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance recently made possible a program where Native participants in Drug Treatment Court can receive programming specific to their culture.
Drug Treatment Court first started in 2005 in Great Falls.
To qualify, defendants must have a diagnosed substance use disorder and/or a co-occurring mental health condition. Generally, defendants come into treatment court on drug possession crimes, property crimes or other crimes connected to substance use, such as driving under the influence.
Clinical assessments are conducted on each potential participant to ensure they are treatable in the community and that the court has the necessary resources for treating their mental health conditions.
By law, sex offenders are not eligible for treatment courts, and a judge can reject a defendant’s placement in the program if they believe another sentence is more appropriate.
In looking at how Cascade County’s treatment court could be improved, Pinski noticed a glaring discrepancy in the success of Native Americans in the program versus other ethnic groups.
“There’s four words that are inscribed on the building for the United States Supreme Court: Equal justice under law,” Pinski said at last week’s ceremony. “But the question you have to ask when you read those four words is, ‘Is everyone included?'”
The statistics are, for lack of a better word, sobering.
Although Native Americans make up only about 6% of Montana’s population, they comprise 20% of the population of the Montana State Prison and 34% of the Montana Women’s Prison.
In Pinski’s program, Native Americans were 32% less successful in completing treatment court than their Caucasian co-participants.
“This is not justice. This is not equality. This is not fairness. This is not what our justice system is supposed to stand for,” Pinski said.
In a treatment court environment, Native Americans are in a group of people who are very different from them, whose lives look very different from theirs, and whose values are not the same as those they were taught, making them less likely to be engaged.
The grant enabled the court to hire a cultural coordinator and adjust how the program looks and its methods of treatment to better align with Native American participants as well as providing the resources to go above and beyond in offering the assistance participants needed to succeed.
Even better, the court was able to partner with the Indian Family Health Clinic to provide services and cultural opportunities not only to Native Americans in the program but also to non-Native and Veterans Court participants.
IFHC also adds an extra layer of support once a participant graduates because they can continue to receive treatment and assistance as long as they need it.
“It’s very important because a lot of what we do is both on the medical primary care side as well as the social and spiritual side,” said Wesley Old Coyote, CEO of Indian Family Health Clinic. “It’s a new life. It’s part of that journey. It’s another chapter in their lives, and we can help them now continue on that journey.”
Tex Damon’s journey started with a DUI.
It was his fourth, a felony, and happened 18 years after his third offense.
“It was kind of a blow,” he said. “I never thought it would happen.”
After a subsequent bail violation, Damon was facing jail time when he had the opportunity to participate in Native American Treatment Court.
It was important for Damon to go through the experience with people who understood him.
“We were kind of a tribe,” he said. “We stuck together.”
Always raised to help people, Damon is already paying it forward, helping others at IFHC and Gateway Recovery Service.
He says treatment court took him back to a time in his life before everything got so complicated.
“I’m just thankful that I got to go back to how I felt when I was a child when I wore braids and I was running around and I didn’t have a curfew,” he said. “My parents trusted me. That’s the main thing is trust.”
But Damon wasn’t the only one who learned something.
Pinski described how participants have to stand before him weekly and tell him about their lives and the changes they are making, acknowledging what a nerve-racking process that is.
But when Damon invited the judge to a sweat on his property north of Great Falls, “In all candor, I blew him off,” Pinski said. “I don’t like to be hot. I don’t particularly like closed spaces. So even thinking about it was very anxiety-driven for me.”
When Pinski finally admitted to his apprehension, he got back a bit of his own medicine.
“Tex looks at me, and he said, ‘Judge, the feelings that you’re describing right now are exactly the feelings that we feel every Tuesday that we have to stand before you in court,'” Pinski said. “How can I argue with that?”
“When we have to go up in front of you, we can’t leave,” Damon said, laughing. “We can’t run away. So that was kind of the punchline for the sweat was ‘You can’t run away,’ which was nice. I don’t know if he’s the first judge in Cascade County to sweat with us Native Americans.”
Pinski also learned how important heritage, family and culture is to Native American people and how those pillars can be used to help them be successful in treatment court.
“I’ve learned so much about not only their culture and traditions but the struggles that the Native people have,” he said. “And to have that recognition and awareness, it makes me a better judge, but it also makes me a better person.”
The need for a Native American treatment court mirrors the need for a Veteran-specific treatment court, placing people together who have a common bond as well as a common set of specific needs and addressing those needs to steer them toward a successful recovery.
And successful it has been, so far.
The program has seen a 64% increase in Native American enrollees and nearly a 52% increase in their successful completion, and more than half of the first six graduates did well enough in the program to have their offenses expunged from their records.
There’s also been a 76% increase in the length of time that those who don’t complete the program remain in treatment.
“And what that means is that even though they haven’t been successful, they’ve learned important lessons,” Pinski said. “They’ve been able to reengage with their culture and their heritage and hopefully through their own sheer will and the power of their creator, they’ll be able to achieve that lifelong recovery that we’re all looking for.”