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Tribal drug court

As drug courts expand across the country, this tribe was one of the first for Native Americans

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SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. (CIRCA) — Lois Krull is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and grew up on the reservation. When she was 20 years old, she started abusing drugs.

Today, she is sober and said drug court helped save her life.

“Before drug court, I said, 'I'm an addict. I'm going to die an addict. I'm never going to get clean,'" said Krull.

"After drug court and all these people, my life was different. My thoughts were different," she said. "I wasn't going to die a drug addict. I wasn't going to be one of those statistics.”

"Just don't lock them up and throw them away. Let's treat sick people as they should be treated. Let's offer them healing, offer them the opportunity to heal."
Patrick McKelvie, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe specialty court coordinator

The total number of drug courts in the United States has steadily increased over the last few decades, but while the idea has gained steam across the country, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe was perfecting its model.

“We have one of the oldest drug courts in the state of Michigan for sure. One of the oldest in Indian country," said Jocelyn Fabry, chief judge for the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa Tribal Court. "We'll be celebrating 20 years in 2019, which is a huge accomplishment and I think speaks volumes about the success the program has had."

Drug court allows addicts charged with a crime to receive treatment instead of jail time. The idea is to help reduce drug use and relapse risk and help a recovering addict re-enter society.

She gave birth to an addicted baby in a county where one in 10 babies is born drug-dependent.

Drug court participants reported less criminal activity and drug use, and fewer rearrests, according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service.

The number of drug courts in the United States has increased by 24 percent between 2009 and 2014, according to the National Drug Court Resource Center's latest data, but the number of tribal wellness drug courts increased by 55 percent during that same time.

The Sault Tribe’s program lasts between 12 and 18 months. Each participant will come to the court for regular review hearings, need to be engaged in a treatment program, and be subject to random, frequent drug tests.

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And in the last 20 years, the Sault have figured out what works and what does not.

“When we first started we had graduated sanctions and it seemed like we were more impatient. We were less tolerant of people doing things that addicts would do," said Patrick McKelvie, the tribe's specialty court coordinator. "As we've really practiced what we've learned, you know, addicts are going to relapse, addicts are gonna make poor choices.

“We've become more time sensitive to not being one, two, three strikes — you're out of the game. More really looking at the 12 to 18 months, we give them time to change.”

What typically makes a tribal wellness drug court different than other drug courts is the use of Native American healing and traditions.

Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians courtroom
Inside the courtroom for the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan. (Circa)

“So many people in the midst of their addiction and our young people maybe don't have that sense of identity. Culture can be healing for people. Culture can also be prevention," said Fabry.

McKelvie himself has battled addiction, so he understands the mindset of those trying to get clean.

"Just don't lock them up and throw them away. Let's treat sick people as they should be treated," he said. "Let's offer them healing, offer them the opportunity to heal."

That opportunity and time is what helped Krull get clean.

“Last I heard, I was the longest person ever on drug court because I just kept messing up and I kept destroying myself. It was intentional. They knew it," said Krull.

“I passed it because they cared enough to not just throw me away, not just to give up.”

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