The Hill County Drug and DUI courts held a celebration of a major milestone Thursday following court: the first graduation of their participants.
Josh Kaupang and JonAnn Roastingstick both graduated from the program, with congratulations and thanks for their work to overcome addictions from Judge Audrey Barger.
“I hope you both have a lot of self-respect,” Barger said, adding at the end of the presentation, “I will miss you both terribly.”
The graduation was held before a crowd of celebrants including members of the Drug and DUI courts and nearly 30 people still participating in the programs — although that number was exaggerated. Barger noted that a half dozen of those people have advanced to Phase III of the programs and did not need to come to court that day. They only came to celebrate Kaupang’s and Roastingstick’s graduations.
Both graduates told Barger how long it had been since they had last used drugs or alcohol: 380 days for Roastingstick and 671 days for Kaupang.
She presented them with diplomas and with graduation medals. The medals are inscribed with the notation: “Life is a journey, not a destination. Personal growth is not a journey of a thousand days or a lifetime. It is a journey of one day at a time.”
The first graduates of a new program
The courts are part of a wave in the country in the last few decades to try to treat addictions rather than punish the people who are addicted.
Local judges can recommend people be enrolled in the program when sentencing the defendants on drug or alcohol offenses. The defendant’s application then is reviewed by the team on the courts. The participants must sign an agreement to abide by the terms of the court and show a desire and willingness to participate, and the team can deny applications and send the defendant back to the recommending judge or enroll the defendant in the treatment courts.
Barger, Hill County justice of the peace, spearheaded the creation of the courts, resulting in the first session held Dec. 6, 2012.
The first funding was a $68,000 grant from the Montana Department of Transportation to establish a DUI Court, including training for its team. Last fall, the U.S. Department of Justice awarded a three-year $349,000 grant to expand and add a drug court. The Hill County court received one of about 14 grants in the nation.
A full team of prosecutors, defenders, probation officers and counselors meet with Barger each week before the court is held to review the files of participants, and to review applications. Applicants agree to give the court jurisdiction and to follow the orders of the judge, an agreement Barger talked about during Thursday’s court and during the graduation.
“It’s hard,” Barger said, noting that the participants have to give up their privacy, give up their schedules, stop seeing friends and even family, and work to overcome their addictions, participate in treatment programs and meet regularly with counselors and probation officers, submit to drug and alcohol testing, and work to completely change their lives.
A life-changing journey
During the party after court and the graduation, Kaupang said the program has changed his life. It was hard to deal with at first, he added.
“Once you get going with it, it’s not so bad … ,” he said. “It’s helped out with quite a lot of stuff.”
During the graduation, Barger congratulated him on the change in his life. He has gained back his family, has a home, is working at a job and is a productive member of the community, she said.
“You’ve become a good role model for your children,” Barger added.
Kaydee Snipes of Lorang Law Office, who participates in the court team as a public defender, said all of the public defenders in the area are excited about the graduation.
“I don’t know what to say except you really amaze me,” she said.
Roastingstick also talked during the graduation party about the court’s impact.
“It’s changed my life, made me stronger,” she said.
She said she now has no interest in drinking.
“Nope. I don’t want it no more,” she said.
Psychiatric Registered Nurse Suzanne Lockwood told Roastingstick during the graduations that she has seen thousands of people in her practice, “and you are probably one of the strongest.”
Lockwood congratulated Roastingstick for making a decision to change her life, and sticking to that decision.
Life-changing for all
Members of the Drug and DUI courts team said during the graduation that the success of Roastingstick and Kaupang — and others in the program — is a rewarding experience.
“This is what makes my job worth it … ,” Adult Probation and Parole Officer Katie Kuhr said. “This is what makes it worth waking up each day and doing my job.”
Hill County Attorney Gina Dahl said she is very happy with the graduation, adding that all the team members have made a huge investment in the program.
“I’m a prosecutor, but I don’t sit on the team as a prosecutor,” she said. “All we want is for them to make it and succeed, and they did.”
Snipes said that, from a defense standpoint, the program is a success when it gives participants pride in themselves and helps them succeed in society.
“I think it’s a win-win for both the prosecution and defense when people graduate,” she said.
Darlene Sellers, PhD, the external evaluator for the program, said during the graduation party that the success of the program is amazing. That is due, she said, to the intensity of services and focus on the participants.
“(It) makes a huge difference. It’s constant. … They don’t fall between the cracks,” Sellers said.
She added, like Barger commented during the graduation ceremony, that it takes courage to enter a program like the Drug and DUI courts instead of taking the easy road, even if the easy road means jail or prison.
“It’s a difficult road, but what a life-changing process it is,” Sellers said.
Courts continue work
And the courts are still full of people working to change their lives, including the Phase III participants working toward their own graduation who chose to come and celebrate with Kaupang and Roastingstick.
Barger accelerated the process with the nearly 30 people in court Thursday to get to the graduation, but still asked each how they were doing, congratulating them on their successes and asking if she could do anything to help them this week.
Most participants received congratulations, but a few did not.
Most failures were minor, missing an appointment or such, and received a warning.
One received a much sterner warning, especially after arguing about what appointments were missed.
Barger said the penalty for this week would be writing a letter of apology, but the censures would become stricter: Next would be community service and the penalties would work up to jail time.
Another was scheduled for a hearing to consider the strictest penalty: Removal from the program and being sent back to the original court.
Barger said the hearing would include allegations that the participant lied, among other things, about receiving prescriptions for medication, and told the participant to wait for a deputy to take him back to jail to await that hearing.
“The basis of this whole program is honesty,” Barger said. “You’ll go back to custody today.”