South Dakota Man Looks to Improve State’s Drug Courts

By Arielle Zionts

Rapid City Journal

Feb. 11, 2019

A recovering addict in South Dakota has been thinking of ways to solve the state’s methamphetamine problem.

The Associated Press

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — Ideas on how to solve the state’s methamphetamine problems have been racing through the mind of Jay Erickson.

The 45-year-old Rapid City resident and small business owner has developed proposals based on his years of experience as a recovering meth addict, drug court participant and prisoner.

“I’m the kind of addict that needs to get the the bottom of why I can’t stay quit,” he told the Rapid City Journal.

With the South Dakota legislative session in full swing, politicians and criminal justice officials are also looking for ways to address widespread meth use and its contribution to crime and crowded jails and prisons.

Proposed solutions range from taking away presumptive probation, to building a prison for meth users, to increasing funding for drug treatment, to exploring alternatives to imprisonment for those convicted of ingesting drugs.

Erickson, who has speckled gray hair and a bright smile, spoke with confidence and passion as he explained his recipe for improving the system.

In his ideal world, the law against ingesting drugs would be abolished or become a misdemeanor. South Dakota is the only state where it’s a felony, he pointed out.

“You’re not (necessarily) driving, you’re just high, or even coming down, you could have been high three days ago but it’s still in your system,” he said.

He said drug possession, but not drug dealing, should be treated like DUIs: the first two offenses are misdemeanors and only becomes a felony after the third offense.

Addicts often need many chances to achieve the difficult task of quitting drugs, and that change would give them more time to do so before becoming a felon, which can greatly limit a person’s housing and job options, he said.

“I would have been very motivated to not become a felon,” Erickson said.

In a 2016 study, the Urban Institute, a D.C.-based think tank, suggested reclassifying drug ingestion and possession as misdemeanors in order to improve on the successes of a 2013 criminal justice reform bill. The ACLU of South Dakota said it supports making drug ingestion a misdemeanor.

Erickson said police should focus less on drugs users and more on drug dealers and preventing meth from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Which one is more of a threat to society or to themselves or to others? The guy who can get another 100 people high, or the guy who’s got (evidence of drug use) in their urine?” he asked.

Lastly, Erickson said, we need to fund treatment places and widen access to treatment within prison.

One thing that won’t work, he said, is the idea that the threat of prison can deter drug addicts.

“You could say that you’re going to cut the person’s arm off the next time they use, they’re going to do it anyway,” Erickson said, calling addiction “a nightmare.”

Erickson, who grew up in Rapid City, said he was first introduced to meth around 2006. He was prescribed Oxycontin after a four-wheeler accident and his friend started stealing and selling his drugs without his knowledge. The friend brought back cocaine and shared it with him, but Erickson later switched to using meth because it’s much cheaper. He said he turned to drugs because he was depressed from being immobile.

Erickson said he eventually quit using drugs on his own, got married and had two boys. But he would relapse and then quit every six to 12 months, a cycle that caused pain for his family and contributed to his divorce.

After he and his wife separated in 2011, Erickson said, he looked into treatment for the first time. He was interested in the Keystone Treatment Center, but the facility didn’t accept his insurance.

“I just didn’t have that kind of money or insurance coverage. Still don’t,” he said.

Instead, he signed up for a more affordable program, an intensive outpatient program run by Pennington County. He said most of the participants were there on court order, whereas he was there of his own free will.

“As soon as the person giving the course would leave the room, everybody’s talking about getting high,” Erickson recalled. “If you really want to quit, your heart has to be in it,” he said.

Erickson said the first time he was caught using drugs was in 2012. He said he kicked some friends out of his home after learning they were stealing from him, and they reported him to the police. He was convicted of drug possession and grand theft, according to Erickson and his profile on the Department of Correction’s website. He said the grand theft charge was for pawning stolen items, including a gun that his friends brought to him.

“I didn’t know, but should have known, that they were stolen,” he said. “But I was so desperate to get more (money for meth) that I guess I didn’t care.”

Erickson was given probation in August 2013 and stayed clean for more than a year until he was caught relapsing, court records show.

When he was brought to court for his probation violation, Erickson said, he asked the judge if he could be ordered to attend an inpatient program, but the judge said that wasn’t an option. But the judge said if he pleaded guilty, he could participate in the Sturgis drug court. The Rapid City specialty court didn’t open until 2016.

“We need to have a conviction out of you before we can treat you. Well the problem is you become a felon,” Erickson said.

Erickson explained how becoming a felon can lead to a difficult cycle, especially for those who live in low-income areas of Rapid City and reservations where meth is widespread.

“When these people haven nothing else, what are they going to do besides get high or decide to try selling? Especially when now you’re a felon and you need to check the felon box to get housing or you need to check the felon box to get a job.”

Erickson said he’s lucky, because even though he will likely never be able to use his nursing license again, he was able to work at his small family-owned business.

“I did go ahead and take drug court because I was accepting it was the only help I had available to me. I thought great, here’s something that’s going to keep me accountable and monitor me.”

The purpose of drug court is to avoid sending people to prison, treat addiction and prevent recidivism, according to the program’s website. It involves random drug screenings, and individual and group therapy and drug counseling. Graduating from the program means avoiding prison, but it doesn’t erase your conviction. A 2018 study by the Legislative Research Council found that graduates of the Sturgis and Sioux Falls drug courts were less likely to re-offend than those who didn’t graduate and those who were served through the traditional court.

After beginning drug court in late 2014, Erickson said he relapsed three times until he was formally kicked out of the program in 2016. He said he knows one participant who was booted from the program after one relapse and another who had 11 chances.

It’s “totally arbitrary,” Erickson said.

Arman Zeljkovic, a prosecutor with the Pennington County State’s Attorney Office, confirmed that it’s up to the judge to determine how many chances people have in drug court. He said that if someone does relapse, they have the right to be represented by an attorney during a termination proceeding and evidentiary hearing.

After failing to graduate from drug court, Erickson was sentenced to eight years in prison. The sentence translated to spending a few weeks getting processed at the prison in Sioux Falls and then being incarcerated at the Rapid City Community Work Center, a minimum-security prison, for 2.5 years. Toward the end of his stay, Erickson said, he was allowed to leave the facility to work during the day.

While Erickson voluntarily signed up for coping skills and group therapy classes in prison, he said an assessment he took found he didn’t qualify for the more intensive drug-treatment programs.

“I was addicted enough to get an eight-year sentence but not addicted enough to get treatment,” he said, adding that people brought drugs back into the facility after returning from work. Erickson said he supports South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg’s idea to build a prison specifically for people addicted to meth, so all addicts can get intensive treatment. But he noted that being in prison without intensive treatment was “not the answer.”

Erickson said he was released from the Rapid City facility on Oct. 4, 2018. He would have to spend two more years on parole.

But just eight days later, he was arrested for allegedly possessing meth and having a positive drug test, police records show.

Erickson’s idea to treat drug possession like DUIs is based on the theory that people will have more chances to avoid racking up a harmful felony.

“What they’ve got to do is provide a person chances. And that’s the biggest thing I think an addict needs is one more chance.”

But some might say Erickson had his chances to quit for good when he was attending the county treatment program, and especially when he was in drug court.

“You’re absolutely right,” he said. “Any addict wants to quit and is torn between (quitting and using). I think the best definition of addiction is continuing a bad behavior despite negative consequences.

“Anybody who’s smoked and tried to quit will understand. Anybody who struggles with eating will understand. ‘Why did I eat that pizza? Why did I have those extra two slices when I know this isn’t what I wanted to do?'”

“There’s bigger consequences (for using drugs) but the concept is the same” as other addictions, he explained.

Jay said he’s stayed sober since his most recent arrest and is focusing on keeping clean, one day at a time.

“My plan is to beat the charge, and I don’t trust the system anymore,” Erickson said. “My best bet at this point is to get that charge dropped and then to build my life.”

Because he is on parole, he can’t participate in drug court again. People can’t be in drug court since it’s a probation sentence and part of the judicial system and also on parole, part of the Department of Corrections, Zeljkovic said.

Erickson said he thinks the key for him to stay sober is to work with his therapist to get to the root of why he uses meth.

He also leans on the support of his parents and church, attends Alcoholics Anonymous and a Christian support group for addicts, and participates in group therapy as part of his parole. He’s motivated to permanently quit by his new support system and the possibility of gaining some custody of his two younger children.

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