The Billings GLACIER court team from the District of Montana, left to right, are Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Vestal; U.S. Probation Officer Ashley Dietz; U.S. District Judge Susan Watters; and Assistant Federal Defender Vann Arvanetes.
“Some of us are just lost and now somebody has been able to help us find ourselves,” said Victoria*, an enrollee in the District of Montana’s new GLACIER Program.
The Group Led Alternative Court Inspiring and Encouraging Recovery (GLACIER) program is a post-plea/pre-adjudication program wherein the participant enters a guilty plea, and sentencing is held in abeyance while the participant completes the program. The program is the result of cooperation between the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana, the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services Office for the District of Montana, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Montana and the Federal Defenders of Montana. If the participant completes the program successfully, charges are dismissed. The program is built for success: flexible and with the understanding that the process is a slow track to recovery.
“GLACIER was modeled on the DREAM Court in (the U.S. District Court of) Western Washington.” said Brian Farren, chief U.S. probation officer for the District of Montana. “Deputy Chief U.S. Probation Officer (DCUSPO) Jerrod Akins and I brought the idea to our judges. They liked the idea so we started working with the federal defenders office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to get the ball moving.”
“Although Jerrod and I did most of the coordination, we had a significant amount of back and forth with both the Federal Defenders (FD) and U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) to finalize the memorandum of understanding,” said Farren. “United States Attorney Jesse Laslovich and Federal Defender Rachel Julagay (executive director of the federal defender program in Montana) played a huge role in helping us get this off the ground. We could not have gotten this court running without Jesse’s leadership.”
Now the program is up and running. “We are in the infancy stage of this program, so all participants are currently in phase one,” said Farren. “We have not had anyone graduate yet. We currently have six participants in our Billings court and four in our Great Falls court. We are anticipating having two in our Missoula court in the near future.”
“I’m looking forward to participating in the Glacier Court to provide a vehicle for offenders to get their lives on track without having to be incarcerated,” said Chief District Judge Brian Morris, District of Montana. “I regularly encounter defendants who have made bad choices that get magnified due to their difficult personal circumstances.
“The District of Montana has faced unusual circumstances in trying to create a diversionary court due to the long distances that defendants must travel to participate, the lack of treatment options in their home communities and the lack of mentors in those communities willing to participate. Glacier Court seeks to overcome these obstacles through the efforts and cooperation of court personnel throughout the District of Montana. Offenders in federal court now will have the opportunity afforded to participants in state diversionary courts to prove themselves,” Judge Morris concluded.
Candidates have to meet some firm standards to qualify for the program. “I wouldn’t say it’s hard,” said Akins, “but we really gear the program for success. You certainly want to provide services to higher risk people but a lot of times the change that you can make, the sobriety that you can help with, is often times obtainable with moderate to lower risk clients. That was the basis behind the criteria that we set up to get into the program and quite frankly, it was a tough sell to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. They are often very passionate about the cases they are prosecuting so they don’t necessarily want to see those people, so to speak, get out of jail free. That’s why we came up with these criteria:
“Their criminal conduct needs to be motivated and directly related to substance abuse issues, they have to be a lawful resident of the United States and they have to reside in the District of Montana. They are not allowed to work as an active informant during their time in the program, they have to accept responsibility for the offense, so in other words, they have to plead guilty before they are accepted into the program, and they have to be willing to basically provide the government with all the information they have surrounding their crime. If they meet all of those initial criteria, then they submit an application with an explanation of their background and history of substance abuse. Then we have an executive team which is made up of myself, two of our public defenders here, and two of our U.S. attorneys, and unanimously we have to agree to accept them into the program,” said Akins.
The participant can be charged with any offense except aggravated identity theft, firearm crimes, sex offenses, violent crimes or have any history involving these crimes. Participants must sign a contract agreeing to participate and to abide by the governing terms of the program. They will be in the program a minimum of a year and a maximum of two years. If a participant fails to complete the program successfully, they are sentenced by the judge overseeing the GLACIER program according to their previously entered plea.
The GLACIER judge and GLACIER team work together to make all decisions about participation in the program. In Montana, each court has a divisional team consisting of a U.S. probation officer, federal defender and assistant U.S. attorney (AUSA).
Akins said the toughest element for the participant is to remain sober, but that’s where the group part of the program kicks in. “Coming from a background where, obviously substance abuse led to them committing a federal crime, it’s tough to simply put the brakes on and stop using. I think sobriety is definitely the toughest part of it, but, I think compared to those traditional treatment programs, they find a lot of camaraderie in the other participants that are there with them in the same situation and looking to get sober and, ultimately, if they complete the program, have their charges dismissed.”
The program handbook is very frank: “We know it is going to be very hard for you to stop using drugs and alcohol if you are hanging around other people who still use them. For this reason, you should not be in communication with these people,” it advises. Participants are required to review their days and show the GLACIER team how they have progressed and combatted risky situations.
The participant must, as is usual, submit to frequent and random drug testing and is strongly encouraged to get involved in the sober community. The program may also provide education assistance, skills assessments, employment assistance, mental health assessments and housing assistance.
All that takes time. “We put a minimum of 12 months on the program and quite frankly, they can’t do it any quicker than that,” said Akins. “It is just tough for them to get through that program in that time anyway, so around the 18-month mark, I would think maybe June-ish of next year, would be about when our first candidate would be looking to finish up.”
Akins believes the program will succeed. “When we were presenting it to judges and getting them to buy in, they said if you can get that one person to take that different path, then the program is worth it,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll be successful with at least one, so the program will definitely be successful.”
Aside from the human element, Akins can measure success in dollars saved too. “If a person were sentenced to the low end of the guideline range, at a daily prison rate of $121 dollars per day, we’ve saved the taxpayers usually somewhere in the realm of $20,000-$50,000, depending on the sentence, of what it would cost to put this person in custody,” he said. “We continually hear the soaring number of incarcerations in the U.S. and the cost of that to taxpayers so I think when we can take some of these people who would be serving some of the shorter sentences for sure out of their confinement roles and put them into a program like this, I think it is beneficial on a number of different levels.”
“It is going really amazing. It is a really good opportunity, I believe,” said Victoria, who is three months into the program. She has managed the challenges well. “(The program) has been pretty enjoyable actually. I like being held accountable for things and that’s something I get to do with the drug court program. I live in a sober living house and being part of the drug court program has helped me be able to do that in a really good, responsible way,” she said.
Further, the program is life-changing for her. “It was an opportunity for me to prove myself as a decent human being and that I am capable of change and that is something I am eager to show the court system. I look forward to gaining a normal lifestyle back, where I can help give back to the community instead of being the old person that I was, taking from the community,” she added.
The group element of the program has been especially helpful. “We meet every time before court and we talk about certain things we can progress in, and we talk about what we’re doing, how we are doing things and it has been very helpful,” said Victoria. “We get to help and motivate each other which is a really awesome part of it.”
Victoria is working at a real estate company “as a personal assistant to an amazing woman who has been a really big supporter of me,” she said. “I think Ashley Dietz (United States probation officer, District of Montana) has been one of the most amazing supporters throughout this opportunity and we definitely couldn’t do it without her.”
“I really strongly hope that we, being the guinea pigs of the program, that we can keep it going, that this is something they’ll see is worth keeping. It will give everybody (qualified) a chance in the future,” said Victoria. “I really do think I’ll succeed. I pray every day, I meditate, I have a great sponsor and an amazing AA home group.”
*Victoria requested her last name not be used while she finishes the program.
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