Seven Directions is a new direction to reduce prosecutions of drug possession defendants

RAPID CITY, S.D. — Monday, Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo announced that traditional Lakota healing, led by Seven Directions Lakota Culture, will be working with Pennington County Jail on a program for drug and alcohol abuse healing.

Traditional drug, alcohol and trauma healers, Chissie Spencer and Ruth Cedar Face, offer a ten-week healing course with cultural practices such as burning sage and prayer. Smudging, another tradition, will be offered — the first time in years.

They’ve completed five of their ten week jail classes and two diversion classes since starting last spring. The two also work with qualifying defendants in Vargo’s Drug Diversion Program.

“The idea was that we wanted people to not be in the system,” said Vargo. “But we were hanging consequences on them that made it almost impossible for them not to come back through. So for instance on a misdemeanor drug conviction, you can be banned from federal student loans, you can be banned from federal housing — a lot of our public housing on the reservations. You can be banned from working a contractor. So if you can’t get a job, and you can’t get an education, and you can’t get a house I don’t think anybody is surprised if you’re stealing things and dealing drugs.”

Like many of the diversion programs,  successfully completing the program may result in having charges such as misdemeanors expunged.

“I spent a lot of time prosecuting federal drug cases,” said Vargo. “And we did a lot of de-briefings where I’d sit across the table from the defendant and almost every one of them, I believe, was being sincere when they said, ‘I don’t want to live like this anymore.’ But if we send them back into the same community with the same skill set and the same impediments of a real job or a real home, then what else do you expect them to do? So that’s where I think the system owes them a fair chance.”

Spencer worked a program similar to this one in Pine Ridge. Alone he saw 180 people graduate with a 75 percent success rate.

He says many are trying to escape, and end up losing support and their own way.

“On Pine Ridge or in Rapid City, when dealing with Lakota people, Native people, what it is… there’s been so much trauma in their life and there’s not enough counselors that they try to escape from everything,” says Spencer. “They don’t want to deal with their real issues, of the real reflection of who they are. And that’s one of the things that we teach. You have to stop and look at who you are.”

The program is part of the MacArthur Foundation funding. The grant itself being a part of the Safety and Justice Challenge — relooking at American jail use and reducing over-incarceration.

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