In most courtrooms, individuals who have committed drug-related offenses can typically expect to receive a lecture, a fine, or a prison sentence.
In one Wisconsin courtroom, they might get a gift card.
No, this isn’t a joke. And it’s not an example of troubled individuals being rewarded for unhealthy behavior.
A special drug court that has been operating in Chippewa County since 2007 provides focused oversight for individuals who have become involved with the legal system due to addiction-related offenses. The participants are required to attend on a regular basis, in some cases once a week, and must complete 40 hours of “constructive activity,” which can include attending work, looking for a job, attending recovery support groups, or receiving treatment.
Though participants can incur punishments, including jail time, for failing to meet these requirements, the threat of punishment is not their only motivation. As described in an article by Rod Stetzer of the Chippewa Herald, drug court participants can also earn praise from the judges, applause from other participants, and small gifts for making positive strides.
Holding prize drawings to reward drug offenders may strike some people as odd behavior for judges, but the efforts undertaken in the Chippewa County drug court are consistent with the understanding that substance abuse is not merely a crime, but can also be evidence of the disease of addiction.
Results indicate that providing structure and support, instead of focusing solely on punishment, have been successful. Of 25 men and women who have graduated from the drug court since 2013, only two have reoffended with a drug-related charge.
Of course, Chippewa County is not the only county in Wisconsin in which officials recognize the need to adopt a dynamic approach in the fight to curtail rising rates of substance abuse. In nearby St. Croix County, both candidates who were running for district attorney in the recent election identified substance abuse as the biggest challenge facing the St. Croix County criminal justice system.
In a pre-election interview with the New Richmond News, the eventual winner, Michael Nieskes pledged to employ “a measured and tiered approach to [drug-related offenders in St. Croix County], giving people the opportunity for rehabilitation, assisting them in finding treatment, and doing diversions to avoid criminal charges in order to give them the opportunity to assist themselves to a better life.”
Sarah Yacob, who Nieskes defeated in the St. Croix County district attorney election, told the New Richmond News that she was a strong advocate of drug courts, including a juvenile drug court and a low-risk track to help drug offenders in St. Croix County get their lives back on track.
The criminal justice system is not the only place where structure, support, and positive reinforcement are being used in conjunction with personal accountability in an effort to help individuals escape self-defeating behaviors related to chemical dependency. These principles are fundamental elements of the 12-Step recovery model, which is used at many substance abuse programs and in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) groups.
At many treatment facilities, individuals who are recovering from substance use disorders can reap the benefits of this mindset by participating in the Making Alcoholics Anonymous Easier (MAAEZ) program. According to a study that was published in the October 2009 edition of the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, involvement with MAAEZ increased the likelihood that individuals in the study remained engaged with 12-Step support groups and remained abstinent from alcohol.