Drug Court Continues To Change Lives

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“Drug Courts require the courts to step outside of the confines of what our traditional roles are. Everyone involved, including the defendants, must rethink their roles and act differently than previous court proceedings,” Judge Jim Roberts began in his opening remarks during Montgomery County’s Drug Court graduation. “Substance abuse affects more than just the abuser, it affects their family, friends and community. The individuals whose graduations we are here to celebrate have overcome many obstacles to earn the right to stand before you today.”

Graduates Mikka Lipe, Shawn Denton and Gary Taylor were honored for completing the county’s rigorous Drug Court program during a ceremony held at Hillsboro Lion’s Club on Friday afternoon, March 26, surrounded by their masked family and friends. Montgomery County Drug Court is a 24 to 30 month, four-phase program that is given as an alternative option to prison for select offenders who meet the program’s rigorous qualifications. 

Montgomery County was one of the earliest counties in Illinois to recognize the benefits of the rehabilitation program and was officially awarded Drug Court certification from the Illinois Office of Administrative Courts in 2019. Drug Court consists of an appointed team which includes Drug Court Judge Jim Roberts, Assistant State’s Attorney Brian Bach, Defense Attorney Barbara Adams, Drug Court Probation Officer Cheryl Adams and Montgomery County Health Department Substance Abuse Counselor Amber Mifflin. Behind the scenes players include Montgomery County Health Department Substance Abuse Program Coordinator Jill Wright, the probation department’s Chief Managing Officer Banee Ulrici, as well as the individual probation officers.

“This is one of the best things that the court system does,” stated Bach. “I have negotiated many prison sentences over the years and have had occasion to offer individuals the chance to go through Drug Court. You would be amazed how many have turned it down because it is too hard and they would rather do their six or eight years in prison. So, I really want to point out just how difficult what the graduates have achieved is and commend them for their accomplishment.”

Drug Court, which was developed in Miami, FL, more than 30 years ago, aims to stop the criminal behavior of its participants through addressing the root cause - addiction. Statistically, addicts who are given prison time have a recidivism rate of around 75 percent and cost the state around $25,000 per year, per inmate. Drug courts across the nation, including Montgomery County Drug Court, are proving that this stringent accountability program has a much better long-term success rate at not only ending criminal behavior but improving the lives of addicts and all those around them.

Mifflin congratulated  the graduates on having the bravery to start a new chapter in their lives. Adams explained the demanding requirements the graduates were asked to complete throughout the program stating, “This is not the easy way out. This is the hard way. It requires real change.” Adams ended her address by presenting each of the graduates with a pair of sunglasses as a tangible reminder of their new futures.

Montgomery County Drug Court operates under a sanctions and rewards basis. Sanctions are given for violations of the program’s strict requirements. They include things, such as additional counseling sessions and drug testing, to community service and even jail time. The sanctions are given swiftly as are the rewards, which include permission for out of town and state travel, court recognition and tangible rewards.

Throughout their time in the program, the graduates attended hundreds of hours of individual and group therapy sessions, substance abuse support group meetings (three or more meetings per week), hundreds  of drug tests (both scheduled and random)and drug court appearances. They were also required to attain and keep a full time job, pay off all accrued court fees and obtain a sobriety sponsor, all on top of rebuilding  their lives and beginning to mend relationships that have been broken by their addiction.

Mikka Lipe was the first graduate to be presented with her certificate. Lipe graduated from the program in 2020 but the pandemic required a postponement of her graduation ceremony. Lipe began by thanking Judge Roberts explaining that she was initially turned down by the state for the program.

“If it wasn’t for Judge Roberts I wouldn’t be here. I would have gone to prison. I had already been and it wasn’t working. Thank you to everyone (on the Drug Court team) for all of their support and especially my mom and sister-in-law Sandy, if it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be clean right now. I wouldn’t have my family today if it wasn’t for Drug Court.”

Lipe went on the thank Cross Over Ministries for the work they have been doing in the community in regards to addiction.

Shawn Denton was the next graduate to receive his certificate.

“Thank you for letting me into the program. Before this, I was just repeating the same pattern, month after month and I know that if I would have gone to prison I would have returned to using when I got out,” Denton said. “Each one of you has helped me in different ways. There was is a sign hanging at the probation office that says ‘behind every addiction there is pain.’ Thank you for helping me deal with the pain.”

Gary Taylor was the last graduate to take the podium.    Judge Roberts commended Taylor for being the first person in the program permitted to graduate early.

“I am grateful to have been allowed into this program. I had already been to prison three times and was looking at another 12 years when my daughter convinced me to consider Drug Court. It changed my life,” Taylor stated. 

As part of the ceremony, the graduates presented roses to those who have fought alongside them throughout their formidable journey to sobriety.

Judge Roberts closed the ceremony by expressing the congratulations of and sharing a few words from former Drug Court Judge, Doug Jarman;  modified from a proclamation used by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, “For centuries anyone who has had business before the court has heard two words called out by the court bailiff, All Rise. These words create order out of chaos. In drug court, they have a greater meaning. All Rise describes how instead of imprisoning addicts Drug Court inserts hope and support into the very lives of people that the traditional justice system says are hopeless. Whenever one person rises out of addiction and crime we all rise.”

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