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Billings treatment court gains national recognition; state courts get boost from opioid settlement

Souza courtroom
Posted at 6:27 PM, May 10, 2023

BILLINGS — Montana treatment courts are being used as a national model, and Wednesday these courts were once again recognized for the life-changing work they're doing.

The National Center for DWI Courts awarded the STEER court of Yellowstone County's 13th Judicial District with a special certification that allows it to train other treatment courts across the country.

"Other teams around the country who want to learn how we operate and who want to learn best practices come and visit Montana either virtually or in person," says Judge Mary Jane Knisely of the 13th Judicial District in Yellowstone County.

Knisely says there are now 40 treatment courts across the state in different jurisdictions and with different specializations, including the DUI and veterans-specific courts over which Knisely presides.

"The cohesiveness of the multi-disciplines and the stakeholders have come together to make this court the model court," Knisely said.

Eight of the 40 courts are about to lose federal funding but Gov. Greg Gianforte's latest budget will cover the funding gap and keep those courts operating. That nearly $1.3 million comes from a settlement with a major opioid manufacturer after the state of Montana sued for damages over the opioid crisis.

"Treatment courts work," Gianforte said. "This is an alternative sentencing mechanism that helps people trapped in addiction get healthy and become productive members of society and it costs a fraction of what a jail cell costs."

Two of the eight courts are in the 13th Judicial District. While Judge Knisley appreciates a day to recognize all the hard work being done to make these treatment courts successful, she says it's the people on the other side of the bench who keep driving the mission forward.

"When you see how these courts are able to change lives and then pass that on, that's why I'm interested in doing it," Knisley said. "These courts and the model work."