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Courts and Crime

In Tribal Wellness Court, 'They Care So Much About You'

Susan Sharon
A prosecutor, defense attorney, spiritual advisor, clients and social workers sit in a semicircle for meeting with Judge Eric Mehnert.

INDIAN ISLAND, Maine — As communities around the country look for ways to combat an opiate epidemic that shows no signs of letting up, drug treatment is increasingly part of the equation.

For years, state drug courts have incorporated treatment as a way to reduce drug-related crimes, save money and help nonviolent offenders become more productive.

Tribal Wellness Court takes that concept a bit further. Intensive supervision is still essential. But probation officers have been replaced by social workers, tribal elders and spiritual advisors.

In a small courtroom on the Penobscot reservation on Indian Island, it's difficult to tell the prosecutor from the public defender or the case manager from the tribal elder or the drug counselor from the spiritual advisor. That's because this is Wellness Court, and these are members of the same team.

Here, everyone, including several defendants charged with minor crimes, sits in a semicircle facing the judge. After each defendant gives an update about how they're doing, each member of the team weighs in.

Credit Susan Sharon / MPBN
Judge Eric Mehnert

"I just want you to know how much I love you," Matthew Erickson, tribal prosecutor for the Penobscot Nation, tells a defendant. "And I really hope for the best for you. You've really had a great, positive impact on my life. I really look up to you."

"Thank you," the defendant says.

Erickson's words would seem vastly out of place in most other courtrooms. The defendant is feeling discouraged about being unable to find a job.

"I was so lifted up when you said, 'You know, in the old days I would have gone and got high,'" Erickson says. "And you didn't do that. So, to me, that's success."

Wellness court is intended to be more therapeutic than punitive.

"Jail is only a sanction when we see that there is some kind of intent," says Chief Judge Eric Mehnert.

He says a guiding principle is that behavior can only change with positive reinforcement.

There are still consequences for screwing up. If participants violate their court orders, they do get sanctioned. But Mehnert says jail is usually a last resort.

"The concept behind it is that the criminal behavior isn't the problem, it's a symptom of the problem," he says. "The substance abuse, which often underlies the criminal behavior, isn't the problem, it's a symptom of the problem. What's underlying all of that is some kind of unresolved trauma that needs to be addressed."

Credit Susan Sharon / MPBN
Naomi Nicholas

"I was an active heroin addict — IV-use drugs," says Naomi Nicholas, 24. "I was dealing and selling drugs and I had a warrant out for my arrest for unpaid fines and child support."

Eventually Nicholas was arrested and sent to the Penobscot County Jail, where she says she went through detox and tried to kill herself by swallowing some pencils. Months later she's participating in Wellness Court, where she has completed one residential treatment program and been accepted at another that's exclusively for Native Americans.

She's early in her recovery but says she's getting the help she needs from the Wellness team.

"They care so much about you," Nicholas says. "Even the prosecutor, the judge — like you see when I'm doing good in the program and his face lights up and he's smiling and he's happy and everybody's happy — like the support there is just amazing."

Nicholas has rediscovered her love of baking along with other joys that she lost while she was using drugs. She plans to go back to school to get her GED and spend more time with her son.

Until now, she says the odds of having a future were against her.

Credit Susan Sharon / MPBN
A poster outside Tribal Wellness Court.

"If I wouldn't have come to Wellness Court I'd probably be dead in a ditch somewhere overdosed or in some drug house in Bangor, you know, like not caring about anything," Nicholas says. "I'm pretty sure it would have killed me."

"Many people that come through the court system feel alone and lost and have very little guidance in their life," says Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis. "I think the court spends a significant amount of time trying to provide that."

He says the inclusion of talking circles, mediation and culturally based treatment in Wellness Court strengthens the bond between tribal members and their community. Also, more productive, he says, is using the carrot rather than the stick.

"And I think if you're really truly looking to be effective and not continuously punish people, I think this is the approach that should be taken," Francis says.

On a small scale, the Penobscot Nation's Wellness Court is getting results. Of the 8-10 defendants enrolled each year, Mehnert says about 67 percent complete the program, which is now more than five years old.

"And what that means is that individuals who graduate from our program, about 67 percent, do not find themselves back in trouble with the law," he says. "And that's opposed to the national statistic that says if someone is just incarcerated or processed through the system — only about 33 percent of those don't find themselves back, so we're double the rate and at significantly less cost."

It costs about $7,000 to manage each client in the Wellness program. That compares to about $30,000 dollars for a year of jail.

Erickson is well aware of the costs and benefits of both models. For many years he worked for the Maine attorney general's office as a member of the Maine Drug Task Force.

"I loved that job," he says. "It was a great job. I loved going after people and the goal was to put 'em in jail, and I think at some time I just realized that we weren't making a lot of difference, and that's the beauty of Wellness Court or drug courts. You can see real positive changes."

And those changes, says Erickson, don't just affect one person. They affect an entire community.