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St. Charles Treatment Court offers graduates a second chance

What does it mean to be given a second chance?

For 20 recent graduates of the 11th Judicial Circuit Treatment Court, it means the opportunity to become “sober, productive citizens” rather than a continuing dependence on drugs or alcohol. Or, as one participant described it, “a complete 180-degree change.”

A commencement ceremony for 20 individuals with felony or Class A misdemeanor charges relating to substance abuse was held at the St. Charles County Administrative Building in St. Charles on Nov. 26.  It was an emotional and long-awaited event for the participants of the 18-month program and their families.

The goal is for graduation to be the first step in a sober life.

The Treatment Court’s mission is to promote public safety while offering individuals involved in the criminal justice system with substance abuse problems a chance to become sober, productive citizens by engaging them in an intensive court-supervised treatment program.

Program requirements include frequent court appearances, attendance at group and individual treatment sessions, attendance at community-based support meetings, frequent drug and alcohol testing, meetings with a probation officer, completion of community service hours, payment of Drug Court fees, and full-time school or employment.

Judge Philip Ohlms, who has served as the treatment court judge for its 19-year lifespan, served at the graduation’s master of ceremonies. In July 2019, Ohlms received the Juvenile and Family Treatment Court Leadership Award at the National Association of Drug Court Professionals Annual Conference held in Washington, D.C.

St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann also attended the ceremony alongside Missouri House Rep. Justin Hill [R-St. Charles], who served at the keynote speaker.

Hill discussed the challenges he faced as a teenager when his parents divorced. He subsequently dropped out of high school and became addicted to alcohol and drugs. He said he overcame his problems with the support of his mother and a police officer. Hill went on to obtain a GED diploma, attend junior college, join the O’Fallon Police Department and eventually graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree. He is currently working toward a master’s degree.

Like Hill, the assembled graduates depended on their own support teams.

Each graduate emotionally thanked their families and specific individuals who had helped them.

Ryan, a graduate who described his life as “a complete 180-degree change,” thanked his mother and the treatment court’s staff for helping him change his life by putting all of the responsibility on him and holding him completely accountable throughout the 18-month program.

“Treatment courts are a critical piece in criminal justice reform,” Treatment Court Administrator Julie Seymore said. “We are trying to keep individuals that have a substance use disorder in the community to get treatment while still supporting their families and learning the necessary tools they need to live a life of recovery once they are done with our program.

“This is an intense program and a lot of individuals choose to serve their sentences rather than enter it because they know it will require a lot of work on their part. We have the utmost respect for those that complete this program and we are proud of today’s graduates.”

Judge Ohlms conducts commencement ceremonies [John Tremmel photo]

Ohlms called each graduate to the front of the room individually then summarized for each person how far they had come from beginning to end in the program. He also announced that many – not all – of the graduates would also have their charges dismissed and their records sealed. Ryan is one of the graduates who will have his charges dismissed and records sealed.

The Treatment Court started in August 2000 and has since graduated over 1,500 participants. Its 20th anniversary will be in August 2020.

To date, the graduates’ recidivism rate has been less than 7%, and 38 babies have been born drug-free as a result of the program. The court has six treatment tracks, including Adult [Diversion], Co-Occurring, DWI, Family, Post-Plea and Veterans. The court has been so successful that it was named a Mentor Court in 2013 and again in 2017. It has since hosted courts from around the nation that want to continue improving their programs.

The Treatment Court also organizes an annual Teen Drug Summit with several community partners. The event brings together over 500 students from private and public middle schools to educate them on the dangers of drug abuse.

To be eligible for the Treatment Court program, cases must be screened by the County Prosecutor’s office and approved by the Treatment Court Team. Cases must be Felony or Class A Misdemeanors that are supervised by Probation and Parole, and involve substance abuse.  Violent offenders/offenses are screened case by case. No sex offenders are eligible for the program. Information about the program is available at 11th Judicial Circuit Treatments Courts, 300 N. Second St., Ste. 429 in St. Charles.

Julie Seymore [John Tremmel photo]

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