- Associated Press - Sunday, June 1, 2014

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Three years ago, Logan Petik reached a crossroads. State officials told him he could go to prison on a felony drug charge or address his addiction to prescription painkillers though Sioux Falls’ drug court.

He chose the latter and has been sober for the majority of three years.

The number of drug and other special courts in South Dakota are being developed and existing programs, which began in 2007, are expanding - going from 65 participants in January 2013 to 105 in January 2014.

Advocates of drug courts say the programs change lives and communities, and Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson hopes to see a drug court in every South Dakota city that can support it.

The state’s 2013 Public Safety Improvement Act brought about sweeping reforms that changed the state’s focus to finding new ways to reduce prison populations and save money. It also authorized the Supreme Court to set up drug courts in any court with criminal jurisdiction in the state’s Unified Judicial System.

Tara Adamski, a defense attorney in the state’s 6th Circuit, said South Dakota had been slow to get on board with drug courts, waiting to see how reforms worked out elsewhere. The nation’s first launched 25 years ago in Florida, and now all states have them - with more than 200 in California alone, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

Now, the courts and corresponding treatment programs’ effectiveness is proven, said Adamski, who is part of her circuit’s drug court team, which includes law enforcement, judges and treatment professionals.

Officials with state’s drug courts say the holistic treatment makes a big difference in people’s lives. Participants receive addiction treatment, mental health care, assistance with housing and jobs and help with other life skills, such as parenting. They also have to check in with the judge on a regular basis.

The program is only for drug users, not dealers or people convicted of violent crimes.

Petik, 24, has experienced the program firsthand, having been charged with possessing prescription drugs without a prescription.

“I didn’t like the way my life had turned out,” Petik said about his addiction. “I’d pretty much given up and they offered me this program.”

He says that drug users can’t get better just by being locked up. He spent 30 days in jail to get the drugs out of his system, 35 days in inpatient rehabilitation and then moved into group housing. Now, he is working on a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Dakota State University.

“It was just a really intense treatment program with a gradual transition back to real life,” Petik said.

Sobriety programs have served the Pierre, Aberdeen and Northern Hills areas for a while. Last year, the state added a new veterans’ court in Watertown, DUI courts in Sioux Falls and Rapid City and drug courts in Yankton County and James Valley. Other programs are under development, including one in Mitchell.

Judge Pat Riepel volunteered to help launch the Sioux Falls drug court in 2010 because the city was lagging behind others of comparable size across the country. Riepel said there are 21 in the program now; since it started, 16 have graduated and 6 have dropped out.

“I thought our circuit needed to have one,” she said. “These clients are going to be in our community and we should be proactive.”

Some courts allow participants to clear their records if they’re first-time offenders, but Sioux Falls’ participants have been in the system repeatedly and are facing prison sentences, she said.

The cost of housing and some of the drug and alcohol screenings falls to most of South Dakota’s program participants, though the state and some federal grants cover treatment and supervision.

But overall, Gilbertson said, the drug courts save the state money - immediately and in the long term. It costs $25,000 to house a prisoner for a year, but drug courts cuts that cost in half, Gilbertson said. Plus, the program reduces the number of repeat offenders.

Once participants complete the program, they receive a graduate ceremony, which Gilbertson said is “quite a festive occasion.”

Petik will graduate from the program later this summer, and says support groups help him stay sober.

“I’m pretty optimistic now,” he said, “I used to not be.”

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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