Eric Killelea, the assistant editor for the Hibbing Daily Tribune and Mesabi Daily News, is a 2018-2019 Rural Justice Reporting Fellow through the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Recovering the Range is a seven-part series exploring treatment courts in northern Minnesota.
It took three months and more than 40 interviews to answer two questions: How do treatment courts operate on the Iron Range? And are they helping people? There is more reporting needed for this evolving series, which will include stories on the drug and alcohol, mental health and veterans court systems to be published every Sunday.
Tiffany Ann Lastovich overdosed 12 times shooting heroin in the summer of 2018. She woke up in hospitals and trap houses. Family and friends became detached when having to carry her into cold showers or administer Narcan. They told her they were preparing for her funeral.
It was last August when after more than a decade of excessive drinking and drug use — her only flashes of sobriety involving four stays at psychiatric wards and five stints at treatment facilities — she was arrested on a pair of felony counts of fifth-degree possession of heroin and methamphetamine and one misdemeanor charge of driving while intoxicated.
The 22-year-old was booked one weekend into the Hibbing lockup. “I was coming down like a [expletive],” she said, struggling to recall whether she filled out the entrance assessment to determine whether she needed medical care in the 72-hour holding facility. She was drunk and high at the time. “Having to withdraw on a cell floor is the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life.” She does remember spending five days in one of the eight cells and then being transferred more than 70 miles southeast to spend the next month in the St. Louis County Jail in Duluth. She was at her bottom when she entered into the county court system.
At the omnibus hearing on the Iron Range, Sixth Judicial District Court Judge Mark M. Starr ordered her to complete a Rule 25 chemical dependency assessment as a condition of her release from jail. It was recommended that she find a residential treatment facility where she could get clean and sober. She wanted to stay close to home, so she called the Range Treatment Center in Virginia. But the only residential treatment option in the area did not have any beds available. She ended up landing a place at Pioneer Recovery Center back down south in Cloquet. She spent three weeks on house arrest waiting for the bed to open up.
After taking a deal to plead guilty to one felony, a county probation officer named Jeffrey Oja ran her through an intake assessment to figure out whether she was eligible for the Range Hybrid Treatment Court Program in Virginia. She tried bribing him with money in hopes that he could help her drop the charges and avoid the whole ordeal. But that did not happen. “I was told that I could plead for a stay of adjudication and take my chance at getting clean or sit away for one year and one day in prison,” she said. “I wanted to just go to prison. I wasn’t scared of prison. I didn’t want to get clean. I didn’t want to face that.”
Lastovich is now one of roughly 50 current alcohol and drug offenders who have accepted — many reluctantly — the Range Hybrid court’s alternative to incarceration. The program, which started here in 2006, is among at least 50 other drug, hybrid or DWI courts statewide that are being considered as a better way to break the cycle of chemically dependent, non-violent addicts appearing in court on related offenses and crowding Minnesota’s prison system.
“Not every story is a success, but we’ve seen people change their lives and it’s incredible to watch,” said Sixth District Judge Michelle M. Anderson, a native of Mountain Iron who cut her teeth as a county prosecutor before being tapped to preside over the Range Hybrid court in 2017. “We can’t incarcerate our way out of the diseases of alcoholism and drug addiction. It hasn’t worked. That awareness is permeating our systems. That realization helps us in rural communities, where people in treatment courts are the same people I see in the parks and grocery stores.”
Offering treatment instead of prison
The Range Hybrid court program, which is primarily designed for non-violent felony adult offenders with high-risk, high-need substance abuse issues, is divided into five phases that run a minimum of 13 months.
Phase One — dubbed Acute Stabilization — lasts for 60 days and requires participants to attend weekly court hearings and monthly support team group meetings, comply with supervision and random visits, take random alcohol and drug tests and get medical and mental health assessments and participate in substance use disorder and mental health treatment.
Participants need at least 30 consecutive days clean and sober to move onto Phase Two — Clinical Stabilization — which mandates similar requirements with the addition of beginning Moral Reconation Therapy and also attending two community support groups on a weekly basis.
Phases Three and Four — Pro-Social Habilitation and Adaptive Habilitation — last for 90 days each in which participants are expected to complete cognitive thinking skills classes and establish out-of-court activities, such as job training, parenting and family support classes, or education.
Finally, Phase Five — Continuing Care — calls for monthly court hearings, complying with treatment, supervision, tests and meetings, and staying clean and sober for the 180 consecutive days needed to graduate from the program.
Like all other adult participants, Lastovich has to pay a total of $1,200. While some men and women express difficulties affording the cost, she reports being able to make most payments since it is stretched over the five phases. Still, she could not advance from Phase Three to Phase Four, because she chose to pay rent instead of the $400 in court fees. Despite the hiccup, she considers the difference between what she could have been coughing up for fines and fees if convicted of a felony charge. For her, that meant $5,000 or more.
Members of the Treatment Court Team — including judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, probation officers, law enforcement, chemical dependency experts, social workers and mental health providers, among others — say recovery can involve relapses and that recovery looks different for everyone. Last year, the team transitioned from requiring 100 percent abstinencne during the program to more mirroring recommendations from the National Association of Drug Court Professionals to be sensitive to the reality of possible relapses, especially in the beginning phases of the program.
But they still abide by sanctions in place for participants who do not follow program rules in the Minnesota Treatment Court Standards, which includes a laundry list of DON’Ts: show up late or do not show up to hearings and meetings, violate curfews, contact felons or drug users without authorization, test positive for alcohol or drugs or acquire new criminal charges. Potential penalties range in severity: verbal admonishments, letters of apology, life skills assignments, increased restrictions, community service work, restarting a phase or the program, fines, home detention, electronic surveillance, stays in jail and program termination.
After graduating from the program, participants are transferred to a standard probation caseload and have a followup with the Treatment Court Team after 90 days to see if they need additional resources.
Origin of Range Hybrid court
The first drug court in the U.S. began in Miami, Fla. in 1989. Since then, all 50 states and Puerto Rico have established their own form of the program, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. The courts use the prospect of prison as a looming threat, but aim to stop individuals from continuing the revolving door of the system.
Now retired District Judge Carol M. Person began sitting in on treatment court hearings back in 2001 in Hennepin County, which started Minnesota’s first drug court four years earlier. She was impressed and planned to kickstart a version of the court in the Sixth Judicial District to cover Carlton, Cook, Lake and St. Louis counties as the second largest geographic district in the state.
Person assembled her own team of judges, law enforcement, county attorneys, public defenders, probation officers, treatment experts and members of the county board to attend a preliminary meeting. Their first meeting was actually scheduled for the morning of 9/11. Needless to say, they rescheduled and those who agreed to serve on the drug court team would reconvene several weeks later.
“When we finally did meet, each of the participating groups sent someone to be a member of the initial team,” Person wrote three years ago for the book “Sixth District Treatment Courts 15 Years of Empowerment.” “For some it was clear they’d drawn the short straw. They were initially not interested and were skeptical about drug courts.”
The team eventually came together to agree on many policies: “How to respond to relapses. When to order random UAs; What kind of violent offenses or more serious drug offenses should disqualify a defendant from participation; what best motivated people; when to ‘give up’ and kick a person out of drug court and perhaps execute his/her sentence.”
Person helped open that drug court in Duluth in 2002. A Range-based drug court was established in 2006 to include participants from both the Virginia and Hibbing jurisdictions. At a time when meth reigned king — before the influx of opioids and the reemergence of meth — St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Nelson joined up with former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-Chisholm, in pushing the court through two rounds of rejection, before gaining approval from the U.S. Department of Justice in the form of $250,000 for its first two years of operation.
“When we began planning for this treatment court, we had three goals in mind: protecting public safety, reducing the increasing cost to the county and judicial system due to recidivism, and assisting people in breaking the cycle of addiction that kept them coming back to the court system,” wrote then District Judge James B. Florey, who now sits on Minnesota’s Court of Appeals.
In 2009, the court expanded and added felony DWI cases to become the Range Hybrid Treatment Court Program as known today.
There are currently a total of five drug or hybrid courts in the Sixth Judicial District, which are funded through several sources, including legislative-approved money as part of the Judicial Branch funding, participant fees that max out at $1,500 annually and gifts and donations, as well as grants and interagency agreements from federal, state and local governments.
The Range Hybrid court operates on about $60,000 annually with the following expenses: 50 percent for drug testing, 20 percent programming such as Moral Reconation Therapy, 20 percent for supplies related to graduations and prosocial activities; and 10 percent for team training and other expenses.
Sitting in his chambers in Virginia surrounded with sports memorabilia from the Minnesota Twins, District Judge Gary J. Pagliacetti described how he had handled only a few marijuana cases as a prosecutor on the Range in the 1970s and 1980s. “Then all of a sudden meth exploded and families were destroyed,” he said. “We were seeing a huge number in meth arrests in Duluth and on the Iron Range around that time and we were trying to find an alternative because the standard jail and probation wasn’t lowering recidivism.”
Still, Pagliaccetti was hesitant when Person asked him to start the Range-based drug court. “I was pretty skeptical,” he said, explaining that he was then the chief district judge. “I thought it would be something like, ‘Oh, we’ll try it and it would fizzle out.’” But his views changed after presiding over a handful of cases. “The skepticism is gone because I saw that it did change people’s lives,” he said. “I thought if one person could break the cycle then we could break the cycle for generations. We had nothing to lose.”
During its first decade of operation, the Range Hybrid court served more than 275 participants, of which roughly two-thirds graduated from the program and maintained sobriety for at least one year afterward. In recent years, the court evolved from only taking in post-adjudication participants to including pre-adjudication as well. Since it is ultimately a volunteer program, individuals still have the option to fight their charges in court or sit in prison and avoid the court altogether. There are such cases. But not many and defense lawyers have found comfort in advising their clients to consider the program.
Laura Paolombi, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy in Duluth, explained that she helps consult with Sixth District treatment courts in part to help lower St. Louis County’s alarming rates of overdose deaths, some of the highest per capita in the state: 23 opioid deaths and 43 alcohol-related deaths in 2017, according to the most recent report from the state Health Department.
Raised in Ely, Palombi grew up experiencing “the dangers of a very stubborn culture of not wanting to accept help” in rural cities across the Range. “And if you’re in recovery and surrounded with alcohol and drugs, you’re basically fighting for your life,” she said, considering the lack of treatment beds and mental health services. “We’re talking about small cities where you can’t get a pizza delivered, but you can get drugs delivered in 15 minutes or go to the local bars down the street.”
Paolombi sees the Range Hybrid court as the best option for non-violent offenders to get clean and sober and brings her university students to court hearings to challenge their preconceived notions of addiction. She sometimes finds herself explaining the court is not easy on participants. “There’s a stigma,” she said. “I tell them 80 percent of substance abuse disorders never get treatment and to imagine if that was the case with asthma and diabetes?”
Anderson also finds herself battling critics who say the court’s program offers little more than a slap on the wrist. “There’s a misconception that we just get people out of prison or we’re soft on crime,” said Anderson, who clerked for Pagliaccetti after graduating from the University of North Dakota School of Law. “I believe that mentality has changed. So, we’re accepted with more positive support in the community nowadays.”
One day at a time
At 5 foot 1 inch, Lastovich is a petite dynamo. She talks fast, laughs loud and has the sunny vibe of youth. But there is a seriousness to her, a direct tone and sharp wit cultivated in difficult times. She can be guarded and chooses her words carefully when she discusses being raised by an alcoholic father and having to couch hop with her mother until settling into a trailer of their own. At age 11, she began smoking marijuana, before moving onto prescription pills — Xanax, Klonopin, Oxycoton and Percocets. She racked up four underage minor in possession of alcohol charges and got busted for a juvenile charge of meth possession. At 15, a judge ordered her into her first treatment facility. She was on probation when she began selling pot, molly and ecstasy to others in treatment in Duluth and the Twin Cities. In the meantime, she graduated from Virginia High School. Class of 2015. “I thought I’d just sell drugs the rest of my life,” she said on her initial post-graduation plans during interviews at the Hibbing Daily Tribune office.
She enrolled at Mesabi Range College in Virginia, but dropped out after one semester. Then she began shooting meth. “Someone had a needle one night and I thought, ‘I’ve done everything else so I might as well.’” Her family cut her off. She felt isolated. Without options. “This led me to hanging out with the wrong crowd, which led me to being manipulated and assaulted physically and sexually, which led me to retaliation,” she said, before pausing to catch her breathe. She sat up in the chair, crossed her arms and leaned them forward onto the table. “I wasn’t just observing all these crazy a** people anymore. I was one of them.”
Meth led to heroin. Then treatment again. This time in California, where she worked part-time jobs in a hair salon and a pet salon. She could not afford the rent and returned to Minnesota within four months. Her friends nicknamed her “Captain Recovery.” But then she had that first jello-shot which “landed me right back to the races again.”
Last year, Lastovich turned 21 years old and began hitting the bars in Hibbing, Chisholm and Virginia. She briefly worked at UPS and for her father’s landfill operation. But she did not show up to either gig after a while, started selling suboxone prescribed to her from the family doctor, took up shooting heroin again and dropped from 135 pounds down to 88 pounds. “I thought I was in control, but nobody wanted to hang out with me because they thought my death was going to be on their conscious,” she said.
Her first few months in the Range Hybrid court were no breeze. She relapsed twice last October and the alcohol and heroin showed up in her weekly urine analysis tests. “Probation told me I’d spend a weekend in jail or end up there if I didn’t get serious,” she said.
Without the Treatment Court Team’s intervention, Lastovich believes she could be dead or at least in prison. She would certainly not be nine months clean and sober, holding down a full-time job, re-enrolled at Mesabi Range College and rebuilding relationships with her family. “The sober life can be boring, but it’s better than the chaos,” she said. After taking the plea for a stay of adjudication, she is now focused on completing the court’s program and completing up to three years of post-graduation probation to get her lone felony — her first ever — dismissed from her criminal record.
Lastovich considers her life and prays that she can stay on her new track for the remainder of the program. She also considers what will happen once she graduates. “I was super scared about drug court. I didn’t think I would make it. I’m still questioning it. But this program saves lives.”
For today, Lastovich is active in the local recovery community, where she has meeting commitments, helps newcomers and plans to soon share her story with her fellowship. “This is the longest I’ve been clean since I was 11 years old,” she said. “Now, when I think of getting high, I see my whole life out the window. If I do go out there again — especially with 12 ODs — I’m not coming back. There’s not another run in me. My next run is to my grave.”