The man stood before six officials, vowing to remain sober in order to see his son again.

"I want to be able to see my boy," he said. "My 15-year-old son broke down to me, begging me to get myself help."

The man was one of five participants speaking to a judge and other officials during the first drug court proceeding for Barnes and Stutsman counties on Thursday, Aug. 15, at Southeast District Court in Jamestown. The five men volunteered for drug court to avoid incarceration, and all five men were questioned on what circumstances brought them there.

The mission of the Southeast Judicial District Drug Court is to assist participants in initiating and sustaining positive, long-term lifestyle changes, including living free from criminal behavior and substance abuse disorders, the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said. Tyler Falk, drug court coordinator and DOCR parole and probation officer, said the program is expected to last up to 14 months for the men, depending upon their individual circumstances.

"Why are you in drug court today, sir?" said Southeast District Judge Cheri Clark, to a second participant.

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"I'm tired of being homeless, I'm tired of not having anything," said the man, a father of 10 children he hasn't seen in years. He is now living in Firm Foundations Sober Living, but said he would struggle to maintain residency there due to the cost. Clients are required to pay $250 on the 1st and 15th of every month to keep a bedroom.

Drug court requires the participants to actively seek sober living, and two of the five men were approved for the Firm Foundations program in Jamestown, which provides individuals in recovery a place to live. According to the program's website, residents cannot consume drugs or alcohol, must comply with drug tests and allow law enforcement or parole/probation officers access to rooms at any time.

"I've seen what the drugs and alcohol can do to families and to relationships," Falk said. "My hope is, as we move through the program, to have success and to get people on with their lives. Ultimately, it's going to make the community safer."

Program began in July

Falk said the drug court program began July 1 but Thursday was the first official meeting. Interest in the program started with Clark initiating talks with community stakeholders and was given a boost when DOCR Director Leann Bertsch authorized a full-time position for the program, eventually given to Falk.

"Nationwide, drug court has been around a long time," Falk said. "Early 2000s is I think when Bismarck and Fargo started theirs. We have it in Minot and up in Grand Forks as well.

"It's been proven that this kind of program works," Falk said. "It's a very intensive program."

A team of officials governs the drug court, including Falk, Clark, John Hirchert, a Stutsman County deputy, and staff from South Central Human Service Center: Ashley Zabka, community support team lead/case manager, Justin Kolden, licensed addiction counselor, and Jace Grugel, addiction counselor trainee. Mark Boening, Barnes County's assistant state's attorney, participated Thursday via webcam.

The drug court hearing is a formal meeting between the participants and the drug court team. Each week the team reviews the individual's progress and discusses issues that may need to be addressed.

During the proceedings, participants were asked to explain their drug history and what future actions they plan to make moving forward with sobriety.

"After I was released (from jail), I walked out of the door and had absolutely nothing," one participant said. "I'm tired of living like this."

"You would not be in that chair if everyone in this room did not believe in you, sir," Clark said.

Individuals are required to participate in drug court for a minimum of 14 months, compared to others that require a one-year commitment. Participants are mandated to attend drug court once a week for the duration of the program.

Falk said the program consists of four phases, with requirements progressively lessening through good habits and behavior. By the last phase, participants may receive leniency on having to report each week, depending on their progress.

Program eligibility

To be eligible for the program, individuals must go through an extensive application process, which starts with their attorney.

The state's attorney and the judge can each refer an individual to drug court, which is different from other judicial districts in the state.

"In other districts, the state's attorney is kind of like the gatekeeper. They're the only ones that can say 'Hey, this guy will be good for drug court,'" Falk said. "Here, the judge does have that option to make that referral as well."

If the lawyer declares drug court could be a fit for a client's needs, an application is submitted to Falk, who investigates the individual's criminal history and conducts an in-person interview. If Falk approves, the application is then taken to the rest of the team that collectively must approve the applicant for the program.

"To get into drug court, there are requirements," Falk said. "People with violence on their record within the last three years, serious violence, are ineligible. Sex offenders are ineligible.

"First-time drug offenders are not eligible," Falk said. "It's actually detrimental to put them in a situation where you're putting them with a bunch of people that have been using for a long time."

Participants in the program must complete drug tests and maintain employment, consistently working 40 hours a week. They must also attend a minimum of two support groups a week, a group meeting at SCHSC and the drug court hearings scheduled every Thursday from 4 to 5 p.m. Failure to do so could result in incarceration.

One participant said he wanted to go back to school and obtain his GED, something Clark said is "very possible" if he continues with sobriety. The program also offers assistance in obtaining education, housing, vocational training, and job placement services, according to DOCR.

"We really want to focus on positive things, we're not all about acknowledging or addressing negative things," Falk said. "We're there to address the positive things in their life."

The program can have up to 25 participants, but Falk said it could be a challenge to find that many people willing to commit to the long-term program.

"Some of them are ready to make changes in their life," Falk said. "But typically I have to go search these cases out and go out to meet with them. Unfortunately, most of the time I'm meeting with them when they're already in jail."

As of Aug. 15, the program has five registered participants. Moving forward, Falk hopes repeat offenders with the appropriate circumstances will be given the option to enroll in drug court consistently.

"It's an alternative to the normal sentences," Falk said. "We want to keep people out of jail. Jail doesn't really fix a whole lot. It's a Band-Aid to a bigger problem."

In addition to avoiding incarceration, participants in drug court can see various other rewards upon graduation of the program, including modifications to probation conditions, early termination of probation and/or dismissal of criminal charges.

"We're hoping over time that some of these cases, they're going to get out of that lifestyle and they're going to move on and have productive lives and get out of the system," Falk said. "The hardest part of this job is the kids that are involved in this. That's my goal ultimately, is that it will get people and families out of that world."

"For too many years, we've tried to incarcerate our way out of addiction," Clark said. "We now know that does not solve the problem of addiction."

Clark asked the last of the five participants why he was in drug court.

"I've never actually seeked help for myself," the man said. "I want to push myself to do something harder than parole or probation."

"How serious are you about sobriety?"

"Over 100%."