VIRGINIA — It was not a typical courtroom scene. The room full of people who have been accused or convicted of alcohol and drug-related crimes applauding and cheering as Jason Drift stood up from his court seat and walked to the podium before Sixth District Judge Michelle Anderson. He reached into his pocket and unfolded a letter he penned the previous night to read now during his graduation from the Range Hybrid Treatment Court.
“When I first entered this program I must admit I was a little hesitant, maybe even a little confused because I never went through a program like this one,” Drift read from his letter Thursday morning. “But as I got more and more into this treatment program it helped me take a good hard look at myself and helped me realize that there’s more to life than just using every day.”
The Hybrid Treatment Court Program is designed to provide people accused or convicted of non-violent, felony drug and alcohol related crimes an alternative to traditional probation supervision. The program handles a maximum of 50 pre-and-post adjudication cases at a time from the Iron Range and uses therapeutic principles of recovery programs that have become popular in similar courts across the state of Minnesota and the U.S.
The state administrator for Minnesota Treatment Courts reported last year that 54 percent of statewide participants graduate, while 94 percent receive treatment and 80 percent complete at least one phase of the five-phased program. New charges and convictions are lower for participants who spend half as much time in prison and two-thirds as much time in jail compared to non-participants.
Since its creation in 2006, the Range Hybrid court served at least 292 people, of which 67 percent graduated from the program, according to the area court’s recent studies.
Earlier this year, Drift, an 45-year-old enrolled member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, told the Hibbing Daily Tribune earlier this year that his life had been punctuated with excessive drug use and drinking. It was the fall of 2017 when Virginia police pulled him over for driving with a bad tail light. The cop told him he had also been swerving and searched his truck to find a few bags of marijuana and a gram of meth. The Indian Legal Assistance Program in Duluth told him to try and get into the Range Hybrid Court. And so he did and was accepted as a candidate and pleaded for a stay of adjudication to one felony count of meth possession, with the understanding that it would be dropped from his criminal record if he completed the program. “It was either try it or go to jail,” Drift had said.
On Thursday, District Judge Michelle Anderson, who presides over the Range Hybrid court in the St. Louis County Courthouse in Virginia, addressed Drift when saying that he had first come into the court post-conviction. “You came ready to make a change in your life and you had motivation to get through the program,” Anderson said. “It’s been remarkable to see you through your journey.”
Anderson continued, saying that Drift has been able to rebuild relationships between him and his children as well as the Bois Forte and has held employment at Fortune Bay Resort Casino in Tower. Anderson previously told the HDT that Drift’s actions to reconnect with the tribe partly sparked the court’s treatment team talking about the need for a cultural advisor for tribal members.
Also, Drift’s efforts helped the district court build bridges with the Bois Forte which has been considering a wellness court of its own. “I’m proud of what you’ve done and your sobriety,” Anderson said. “I’m looking forward to what you do in the community as you move forward.”
Jay Del Caro, a licensed-practical nurse at Range Mental Health Center in Virginia, told Drift that he had “worked really hard and somethings you had to fight hard to get back ... like your family.” He continued, “I’m very proud of you.”
The compliments were followed with much applause and handshakes and the presentation of a plaque that showed Drift having 487 days of “documented” sobriety.
Drift reflected on the past 16-plus months of recovery in the program, telling the court, “The program helped me in so many ways like responsibility, honesty, being more open with myself and toward others, helping me fill out paperwork for housing, child support, pointing me in the right direction to get my driving privileges reinstated, rebuilding a better foundation with my family, earning their trust back.”
Drift continued, “But most of all giving me a second chance to be back in my kid’s life. To choose the right direction that I need to go in my life and to keep being that better person.”
Several of Drift’s family, friends and co-workers from Fortune Bay kept him company as they joined the judge, the court team and other program participants in gathering into a nearby room for coffee and cake. It was here that he reiterated the importance of his recovery and how the court program turned out to be a better option for him rather than jail and how the most important gift of sobriety for him remained his getting to spend time with his children.
“I got my life back and I got my kids back,” Drift told the HDT. “I still talk to them and now I get to see them sometimes when I’m not working. I was able to take them to McDonald’s in Cook and then to Fortune Bay for ice cream.”