A Small Step in the Right Direction

November, 2011 - Sioux Falls Argus Leader, by Marty Gallanter

I have been a vocal and public critic of incarceration for more than thirty years. Last June, on these pages, I wrote at length about the failure of our euphemistically titled “correctional system,” across the entire nation and especially in South Dakota .  But recently I had the opportunity to observe a small step in the right direction, a program called Drug Court .

A friend who has struggled with substance abuse for many years was given the opportunity to be part of this experimental effort. I went along for support.  As the name indicates, it takes place in a courtroom in the center of all the seriousness and majesty that such a space radiates.  And there is a judge, black robes and all, presiding over the process.

But that’s where the similarity ends.  The room was filled with people, about a dozen of whom were the participants, those who had been selected to try an alternative path away from prison.  They were all young, joyous, laughing and teasing each other as they waited for the proceedings to begin.  The others were the support team; social workers, medical professionals, court officers and counselors.

One by one the participants appeared before the judge and reported on their week in the world.  It would have been obvious to anyone that these young people were not a threat to the honest citizens of Sioux Falls .  There were no “drug pushers” in the group, just folks who had slipped into the arms of addiction, each for their own reasons.  But each was there to let other arms help them climb out of the darkness of the disease.  And they were there to offer their arms to each other.

Each presentation was greeted with applause and support from the entire room.  The judge was sympathetic but firm.  Her confirmation of their progress was immediate and her condemnation of any backsliding was quick and direct.  No punches were pulled here but corrections were delivered with something that can only be described as certainly being close to love.

Completing Drug Court and “graduating” takes somewhere around twenty months, longer probably than most of the offenders would have been incarcerated.   But it is a program designed to heal not punish.  Twelve Step meetings, special counseling and community service are central to the daily lives of those in the program.

It does begin, for everyone, with 30 days in the county jail.  Even this isn’t wasted time.  It’s used for self-reflection and honest inventory taking.  Those in jail are brought to the weekly court meetings so they too can participate.  Maybe that’s what the Quakers had in mind when they first developed the “penitentiary” as a place where sinners could go and do penance.  To add icing to the cake, Drug Court actually saves the taxpayer money as it is less expensive than trial and incarceration.

Only time will tell how effective this bold program will be for the handful of young people currently enrolled.  But it sure is a bright star on an otherwise dark horizon in the criminal justice system.

I started out by saying that this was a small step in the right direction, but it is only small because of the limited number of people who can benefit.  Expanding it too quickly would probably destroy it.  However, in concept, Drug Court is a giant leap of faith showing a compassionate side of the South Dakota justice system and saving some valuable young lives that might otherwise be destined to the revolving door of jail and drugs.  God Bless!!

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