Some people arrested on a first-time drug-related offense in Ravalli County are being offered a second chance to keep their record clean.

But to make that happen, they’ll have to be willing to walk a path that’s straight and narrow.

Borrowing from the best aspects of similar programs around Montana, Ravalli County’s new drug diversion program focuses on people charged with their first felony-level drug offense. In order to qualify for the program, offenders can have no ties to drug distribution or any sort of violent criminal record.

Ravalli County Attorney Bill Fulbright said the program looks to work with those dealing with addiction issues who can be treated locally and outside of the criminal court system.

“We were looking at what we could do to unclog the criminal justice system,” Fulbright said.

In order to make the program work, Deputy County Attorney Thorin Geist reached out the community to find the necessary partnerships.

The Hamilton Police Department and Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office agreed to use some monies from their drug fund to help pay for treatment and drug patches. Hamilton’s Sapphire Health Center and Western Montana Addiction Services agreed to provide the treatment.

The program officially began seven months ago.

Potential participants are screened shortly after their arrest. After they are arraigned in Justice Court and advised of the charges they face, Geist said they are given the option of being screened for potential inclusion in the program.

If they say yes, they are released on their own recognizance while wearing a drug patch that will detect any illegal drug use, and given 24 hours to report to the one of the two drug diversion program providers for an expedited chemical dependency assessment.

That assessment is then reviewed by both the offices of the county attorney and public defender to determine if the person can be treated for their addiction at one of the local providers.

“From there, we make the determination if the person will qualify for the program,” Geist said. “If they do qualify, we give them the offer to participate in the program, which essentially takes a lot of control out of the hands of the criminal justice system and puts it in the hands of the treatment providers.”

If they agree, the participant makes an initial appearance in District Court and pleads guilty the charges. The case is stayed for six months.

“From there, the defendant then has to participate in a treatment program,” Geist said. “If they successfully complete the program, then we file a motion to dismiss the case with prejudice and the case is done.”

“If they fail out of the program, then they go straight back to court and are sentenced,” he said. “If that happens, it means there isn’t a year of delay of getting them into a drug treatment program while their case works its way through the justice system.”

That delay has always been one of the challenges facing people dealing with addiction.

“We have a lot of drug cases, but there isn’t a whole lot of funding resources to get them into drug treatment programs,” Geist said. “Often, it’s a year or 18 months before any of these people can get into treatment with the Montana Department of Corrections.”

Fulbright said that delay is a recipe for failure for many people.

“What we have seen happen is people are arrested and then released as their case works its way through the system,” Fulbright said. “They can wait six to 18 for DOC (Department of Corrections) to get them into a program, and in the meantime we basically say, 'Good luck, but don’t use any drugs or other illegal substances while you’re out.’”

When they go back into the community and often into the same situation where they had troubles before, they frequently end up breaking the conditions of their release and are re-arrested and put back in jail.

“Often as not, you end up with a defendant who has two, three, four — I think seven is the current record of revocations — for things like testing positive for drugs, not showing up for meeting or tampering with a drug patch,” Geist said. “The only option we have is to ask the court to put them back in jail, where we know they won’t have access to drugs.

“And then when we finally get to sentencing and are talking a plea agreement, we have this person who has violated conditions of release seven times,” he said. “It makes it harder to make a case that they are a good candidate for a deferred sentence.”

Stewart McCracken, a licensed addiction counselor at Sapphire Health Center, has seen the program work.

The county’s new drug diversion program recently had its first graduate. Several others are working their way through treatment in hopes of having their charges dropped upon completion of their individualized programs.

“There are a lot of drug problems in our valley,” McCracken said. “In some cases, people need to have a harsher penalty. For those first-timers, this is a chance for them to receive some help to get off drugs and get their lives back on track.”

McCracken worked with that first graduate, who was motivated to protect her certified nursing assistant certification. She took a job that paid much less while she successfully completed the treatment program.

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“Without that drug conviction on her record, she now has the opportunity to go on and help in the community,” he said. “She can be kicked up the taxpayer food chain with a better job and be in a better position to help improve both her life and her teenage son’s life.”

And that helps the community, too.

“We’re not having to spend money housing her and feeding her in jail or prison,” McCracken said.

Many first-time drug offenders may not even realize they are addicted.

“My role is to help them learn about addiction and provide them with the tools they need to stop using drugs,” he said. “People will you that they have everything under control until they try to stop using. I help them examine their personal situations, how they became addicted and then develop strategies and plans for them to overcome it.”

Geist said the program won’t work for everyone.

So far, eight people have been offered the program after going through the initial screening. All of them accepted.

But about 40% of those who have been given the chance to receive that initial screening in that first 24 hours didn’t show up at the treatment providers' offices.

“All of them ended up back in the system,” Geist said.

Fulbright expects the program will grow once people see it changing the course of people’s lives while cutting down the time and expense in the criminal justice system.

“Both Sapphire and Western Montana have been really good partners in this program,” Fulbright said. “They saw the same philosophical advantage to it and jumped on board. Both the sheriff’s office and Hamilton police immediately said ‘Heck, yes’ and gave us some of their drug fund contributions to help offset the costs.

“And Thorin has done a great job in pulling all the people together doing the research necessary to get this up and running,” he said of the county attorney. “The popular phrase is that we’re not criminalizing addiction. This program has ancillary benefits in addition to helping the individuals. It takes some of the burden off the criminal justice system, too.”

Hamilton Police Chief Ryan Oster said it all made perfect sense to him.

“These are all nonviolent offenders who are being offered a second chance to stay out of jail and keep their records clean,” Oster said. “If they can prove that they can toe the line, good for them. If they can’t, then they end up back in the system.”