MARSHALL - At first, he wasn't sure what he was getting into. It turned out to involve two years of hard work, little privacy and some intense personal changes. But by the end, the difference it made was huge.
"I don't feel desperate anymore," said a Marshall resident - who asked to be identified only as Shawn - speaking to friends and family gathered for his drug court graduation ceremony earlier this week.
"I have a closer relationship with my family than I think I've ever had before. I have some friends in recovery I wouldn't trade for the world," he said. "Because of this alternative, I have a different way of living."
Shawn celebrated his graduation from the Southwest Community Drug Court program at a ceremony and reception earlier this week.
He is the first drug court participant to graduate in Lyon County, and more people will graduate this fall, said drug court coordinator Mahlon Mace.
Drug court is a relatively new program in Lyon County. The Southwest Community Drug Court, which serves Lincoln, Lyon, and Redwood counties and the Lower Sioux Community, was organized in 2009. Since then, participation has grown to 15 people in Lyon County and 11 in Redwood County, Mace said.
One of the main goals of the drug court program is to reduce drug crime in the region, but its methods are different, said Mace and District Court Judge Leland Bush. Instead of going to prison, drug offenders can complete a supervised program and receive treatment for their addiction. Participants must be non-violent offenders and meet other eligibility requirements.
"It's a program to address the disease of addiction as the disease it is, rather than just being punitive," Mace said. Studies conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office have found that drug court participants who complete the program are less likely to reoffend, and the programs can help reduce costs to the judicial system.
Those factors weren't the most important ones for Shawn in 2010, when he was faced with a prison sentence for felony drug charges. His public defender asked him about participating in drug court, and after some explanation of the program, he decided to do it.
"The only alternative before was to send people like me to prison, where we become better criminals and meet other criminals," Shawn said. If he hadn't gotten help through the program, he said, he felt he would have gone back to using drugs and committed more crimes.
But drug court was definitely not an easy way out, he said.
"The scary part about drug court is you're expected to follow certain rules and meet certain expectations," or face consequences, Shawn said. Participants are under intense supervision - besides getting treatment for addiction, they are subject to curfews, random drug tests and visits from law enforcement. They also have to have structured activity, like work, school or job training.
"It's not for everybody," he said. "I've known people who have turned this down," or decided the program wasn't going to work for them, he said.
In his two years with the drug court program, Shawn received treatment at a residential center and lived at the Project Turnabout halfway house during another phase of the program. He also completed 160 drug tests and had 72 drop-in visits from law enforcement.
However, Shawn said for him the most important part of the program was the support system it helped build. Participants are encouraged to have family members involved in the recovery process, and participants are also required to attend support meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.
"That is the one thing, I think, that has helped me the most," he said. For example, if he was frustrated with something a member of the drug court team said, "I can go to my friends and get it all out, and then they can say, 'Well, maybe he has a point.'"
"You have to have a support system, and they help create that," Shawn said. "You have to do the work, though."
By the graduation ceremony on Monday, Shawn had gone more than 700 days without using drugs. After graduation, he said, he will "take things one day at a time" and keep working full time and attending support groups.
Mace said he is optimistic that the Southwest Community Drug Court will be able to continue its mission into the future but finding funding will be a challenge. The program was started with the help of a $350,000, three-year federal grant that ended in August. Mace said they were able to get a one-year extension on the grant and are looking at other funding possibilities. There have been some positive signs, he said. Recently, both the Minnesota Department of Human Services and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar have called for expanded support of drug court programs.
Shawn said he hoped the program would keep going.
"I wish it was expanded and made available to more people. I wish more people knew about this," he said.