ELLSWORTH — Ron Schmidt can remember the cook houses in Pierce County.
Schmidt has been Pierce County human service director for four years. He still remembers procedures followed when children were affected by these cook houses.
“We saw the burning meth house that would catch fire, endanger children, cause toxicity where we literally had drug endangered children protocols where we would decontaminate kids,” Schmidt said. “They’d be showered, they’d be cleansed. Making sure there was no residue of meth on them.”
In 2017, cook houses are a thing of the past, at least in Pierce County. A statewide methamphetamine study reported no cook houses present in the county. Schmidt said the drug trade has changed from local addicts and drug dealers cooking product to a stronger, more established foreign entity infiltrating the region.
“We no longer see the burning meth house anymore,” Schmidt said. “We don’t see people burning themselves up with ether. What we do see though, is an increase in the use, what is obviously cartel-supplied methamphetamine from Mexico or even Canada, but most is now purchased products.”
With drugs continuing their stranglehold on citizens, law enforcement and governmental agencies are running out of money to combat drug abuse. Pierce County Drug Court Coordinator Mary Kelly works to find ways to help as many people as possible.
Kelly, who worked in Wabasha County for four years before coming to Pierce County when the drug court began in 2004, said the drug court has gone through a massive transition since its inception.
“When I first started here, we terminated a lot of people,” Kelly said. “And a lot of them were the younger participants and that’s when we’re looking at what’s going on, what are we doing wrong, how can we keep these people in the program. That really was our catalyst to retool the program.”
A three strikes policy was applied and releasing people from the program “was pretty quick,” Kelly said.
To be eligible for Pierce County Drug Court, participants must meet the following criteria and receive a referral from the district attorney’s office, a probation agent, the Department of Corrections and a defense attorney:
- Resident of Pierce County
- Charged with a felony in Pierce County
- The offense was committed while under the influence of, or while in the possession of illegal drugs, or must be some relationship between the addiction and the commission of the offense.
- Willing to comply with the drug court program rules.
- Found, through the use of a screening tool, to be addicted to drugs and/or alcohol.
- Able to physically participate in treatment activities, within the guidelines of the Americans with Disability Act.
Drug court meets weekly at 8:30 a.m. Tuesdays in Pierce County Circuit Court, which is open to the public.
The drug court treatment is “rigorous,” Kelly said. A lot of participants have trouble staying in the program because they choose to stay in jail.
Participants are enrolled in drug court a minimum of 13 months; random drug tests are taken throughout the program. These drug and alcohol tests can span weeks or months, or multiple tests may be taken in one week.
Along with drug and alcohol tests, drug court participants must:
- Attend drug court weekly, bi-weekly or monthly, depending on what phase they are in.
- Participants must attend one to three meetings a week.
- Participants must obtain and work with a sponsor.
After meeting the requirements of each phase, participants may move on to the next phase.
In total, the Pierce County Drug Court has graduated 51 and terminated 29 people.
“If you have over 50 percent graduate, that’s typically good,” Schmidt said.
Kelly said when looking at drug court, you have to assess it like a doctor would when looking at an injury.
“In our program, the best practices say we serve high-risk, high-need offenders,” Kelly said. “I like to tell people, if you go to the doctor and you have a broken finger, they don’t put a body cast on you. Drug courts are the body cast of treatment. So we’re not going to want to treat someone with low-risk, low-need.”
A judge’s perspective
Pierce County Judge Joseph Boles has been hearing cases since June 2010; he sees cases dealing with meth too often.
“The overwhelming number of cases that we see here are meth,” Boles said. “Possession meth, sale related to meth, it might be a family case, you know, where there’s a child in need of child protective services.”
Boles said he’s rarely seen any cases related to heroin; meth and drunk driving are the two most common cases heard in Pierce County.
Boles presides over drug court cases; he doesn’t approach these cases all that different than cases he usually hears.
“It’s not really hard for me,” Boles said. “I’m not law enforcement, I’m the referee. I’m the one making decisions on evidence and issues that come up during a case. The charging part of it, I don’t think it’s too difficult from a district attorney standpoint and there’s a lot of precedence for them as far as other cases around the state on how to deal with that.”
Boles, along with Kelly and Schmidt, is part of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee in Pierce County. The CJCC’s goal is to make communities safer, improve outcomes for people who are charged with crimes facing jail or prison time, lower costs and reduce recidivism.
CJCC meetings are open to the public and take place in the Emergency Operations Center in the Pierce County Courthouse Annex from noon to 1 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month.
When it comes to his case loads, usually a meth-related charge goes hand-in-hand with burglary or theft charges, Boles said. That’s where the CJCC becomes important, keeping people arrested or convicted of crimes away from others who could encourage more potential crime-like behavior.
Reflecting back to 2010, Boles said there’s more of a problem related to meth abuse in the county than before and it has to do with people’s outlook on the future.
“If they’re looking at their future with hope and they have dreams and they think they have a place in society, a chance at a good job, that would help a little bit,” Boles said. “I tend to think that if we help this generation as much as we can with the programs we have and the treatment if they’re able to change their behavior, that it will have a positive effect on their children.”
Recently, a Treatment Alternatives and Diversion grant from the Wisconsin Department of Justice was awarded to Pierce County to establish a court that addresses Operating While Intoxicated felony charges.
Kelly said when the drug court first began, they would bring in people with drug and OWI charges. The results were unsuccessful.
“We were finding, when we started to use the assessment tool and really trying to define the people who were in the program, the OWI offenders didn’t fit,” Kelly said. “They typically come out low-risk, so they don’t fit in our program, even though they have felony.”
The drug court is funded by a TAD grant as well, receiving $54,700 annually for five years. The OWI court received $274,000 annually for five years.
The court is slated to open this year, according to the CJCC, but no date was announced.
Schmidt’s outlook for the county and its drug and alcohol abuse problems are simple: change outweighs cost.
“My viewpoint is very social-work orientated,” Schmidt said. “That is, if we get one person to truly change, the economic benefit of drug court being about $100,000 in a total cost program, is changing one person’s life worth a $100,000 to this community? I would say yes.”