White Earth Nation, Mahnomen County Launch Joint Drug Court
After months of planning by justice system and tribal officials, a proposal to establish a joint White Earth Nation-Mahnomen County drug court program received final approval in 2018 from the Minnesota Judicial Council, the policymaking body of the Minnesota Judicial Branch.
The new drug court program represents a partnership between state, local, and tribal governments aimed at reducing drug abuse throughout Mahnomen County and the greater White Earth Nation tribal lands. In December, the White Earth Tribal Government identified an urgent public health crisis after there were seven reported drug overdoses, including two deaths, within 48 hours on tribal lands. Between 2014 and 2017, there were 320 Major Drug cases filed in Mahnomen County, one of the state’s smallest counties with less than 2,000 households. By comparison, neighboring Norman County, with a population roughly 20% greater than Mahnomen County, saw just 48 Major Drug cases filed during that same four-year span.
The program, officially called the White Earth Tribal and Mahnomen County Healing to Wellness Drug Court, targets high-risk, high-need felony offenders whose substance abuse problems caused or contributed to their current involvement with the criminal justice system. Through the program, district court and tribal judges work closely with prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers, social workers, and other justice system partners to develop a strategy that will pressure an offender into completing a treatment program and abstaining from repeating the behaviors that brought them to court. The ultimate goal is to address the underlying addiction that resulted in the offender’s criminal offense, and have him or her leave the program sober, law-abiding, and with a stable living situation.
Judge Lang named ABOTA’s Trial Judge of the Year
The Minnesota Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA) presented its 2018 Trial Judge of the Year Award to Ninth Judicial District Judge Lois J. Lang. Minnesota ABOTA recognized Judge Lang for her excellence in the conduct of jury trials, her enduring professionalism, and her commitment to civility. Judge Lang was appointed to the bench in 1994 by Governor Arne Carlson. She was the first woman appointed to the bench in the Ninth Judicial District, which includes 17 counties in the northwest corner of the state and encompasses approximately 30 percent of the state. There, she served as assistant chief judge and then chief judge during her 24 years on the bench. Judge Lang retired on July 6, 2018.
New Pennington County Justice Center
In November 2018, the Pennington County District Court moved to a brand new justice center. Although the new justice center did not change the way the court conducts business, the new space is more welcoming and better provides for the needs of court visitors and personnel. The new space is shared by the Pennington County Attorney’s Office and Pennington County Jail, providing better service and improved security.
The two new courtrooms seat 75 spectators per courtroom, increasing access to the justice system for the public. There are four conference rooms adjacent to the courtrooms where attorneys and justice partners can meet with clients before and after court appearances.
The new justice center has a larger jury assembly room that can accommodate 50 prospective jurors. The new public lobby seats more than 30 people, and replaces a space in the former courthouse that only had room for eight to ten people.
The new space has significant security improvements, creating a safer environment for everyone who visits the court. All district court offices are within a secure area, and the judges and court staff have secure access to the courtrooms. Defendants who are incarcerated can be transported to court appearances through a secure elevator directly from the jail to each courtroom. When the court was in the previous location, the jail was in a separate building and defendants would walk across the street from the jail to court.