- Associated Press - Saturday, October 18, 2014

DECATUR, Ill. (AP) - For William Hirtman, a recovering drug addict, every day is a day to be grateful.

They begin when he wakes up with his wife of nearly 29 years, and most of them end with an eight-hour shift processing meat for Heinkel’s Packing Co.

Thinking about the alternatives brings tears to his eyes and a quiet tremulousness to his voice.

“I’ve seen prison, and that was bad enough,” he said. “I never got to the point where I had to be institutionalized, and I know I don’t want death.”

Hirtman, 53, of Decatur is about to graduate from Macon County Hybrid Court after staying sober and completing all the other requirements in less than 16 months. The 2½-year-old diversion program gives offenders guilty of nonviolent felonies the substance abuse treatment they need instead of sending them to prison.

The first dozen graduates celebrated their achievement in March, while Hirtman and 11 others are set to do so on Halloween.

The team running the program estimates that for every dollar invested in hybrid court, taxpayers save at least $3.36 in criminal justice costs and as much as $27 when savings from reduced victimization and health care service use are added.

“Not to minimize the impact of probation or treatment, but a real key to success is appearing before the judge,” said Tim Macken, chief clinical officer for Heritage Behavioral Health Center.

Indeed, Hirtman’s successful discharge Aug. 15 was marked by applause in the courtroom and a broad smile from Associate Circuit Court Judge Thomas Little.

“You’ve done extremely well and been a good example for many other clients in the program,” Little said.

Moments later, the judge addressed a younger defendant, a man charged, like Hirtman, with aggravated driving under the influence.

Little spoke no louder, but his countenance had utterly changed.

First he reminded the man he had skipped a drug test. Then the judge recalled earlier punishments that ranged from writing sentences to seven days in jail, all to no apparent effect.

“You’re not getting the message,” Little said. “If you’re sober and follow the rules, we’ll have a great time. If you screw around and miss your probation department appointments, I’m not going to be your best friend.

“With the progress you’re making, we might just as well terminate you now. We’d be happy to make room for somebody else.”

The judge punctuated the dressing down by ordering the man to spend 14 more days in jail and write an essay outlining his goals and how he planned to achieve them.

Among the witnesses were the 30 other defendants Little saw that day in hybrid court, plus four program candidates observing one of the two times required for acceptance.

“We don’t have any perfect people here,” the judge told the observers afterward. “Everybody makes mistakes, but if you make a mistake, we expect you to be honest, come in and tell us about it, and we’ll try to help you learn something and give you some tools to control those urges to use.”

Hybrid court is in session every Friday afternoon, with new clients appearing weekly for at least 30 days, and typically every other week for the next six months, then every four weeks for a minimum of five months and every eight weeks for six months.

Supervision by other members of the team also decreases in frequency for clients who behave.

Team members include representatives of Macon County Probation and Court Services, with probation officer Marlane Miles handling drug cases and officer Jaime West handling alcohol cases and Specialty Courts Administrator Ralf Pansch overseeing the county’s hybrid and mental health courts.

Other players are Little, Assistant Public Defender Andrew Wessler, the Macon County sheriff’s and state’s attorney’s offices, and Heritage Behavioral Health.

Supported by a three-year, $300,000 drug court grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, along with DUI court funds from the Illinois Department of Transportation, hybrid court started up in 2011, which was four years after the Macon County Board cut a previous drug court from its budget, and will transition Oct. 1 to lesser levels of grant funding.

The state grant is dropping to $40,000. The federal government, meanwhile, awarded a two-year, $200,000 enhancement grant covering services the previous grant did not pay for.

“We’ve had people who could have benefited from dental work or needed more than an emergency homeless shelter until they could save up enough money to get out on their own,” said probation supervisor Melanie Daly.

Probation director Pat Berter said he’s trying to make up the difference by applying for $60,000 from the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts and that Macon County has helped pay for hybrid court from the start, primarily by covering treatment costs.

Macken said that burden is shifting to Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, so the financial foundation for the court likely will hold for now.

“There’s been no recidivism among the 12 people who graduated this spring, so it really seems to be working,” he added.

As of mid-August, hybrid court had accepted 61 drug addicts, 25 of whom have been discharged unsuccessfully, and 34 alcoholics, five of whom flunked out.

A 52-year-old Decatur man charged with aggravated DUI spoke Aug. 15 in court at the judge’s invitation about how the program has helped him keep from drinking since he was accepted 11 months ago.

“I drank for 38 years and still have the desire,” he said. “When you first quit, you’re on what they call ‘the cloud.’ Sooner or later, you’re going to come down off that cloud, and that’s when you really need a sponsor and utilize the meetings.”

Minutes earlier, another DUI defendant, 43-year-old Elliott Murphy of Decatur, was promoted to the final phase of the program and told he did not have to return to hybrid court until Oct. 10.

“I’m an alcoholic, and I believe the man upstairs helped me get into this program,” he said after court. “It’s saved my life because I didn’t know how stop doing what I was doing.”

Murphy echoed the sentiments of Hirtman, who was caught with crack cocaine last year and charged with possession in addition to aggravated DUI. “My faith is stronger than the will I have to use,” Hirtman said.

Heinkel’s President Miles Wright said he’s glad he hired Hirtman this spring.

“You can count on Bill to be here and do the work, and he’s observant about other things that need to happen in the plant,” Wright said. “He’s been a good employee.”

Hirtman said hybrid court helped him get there.

“I wasn’t sure it would work for me, but my wife stuck by me through it. I thank God for her and for all the people who believed in me before I believed in myself.”

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Source: (Decatur) Herald & Review, https://bit.ly/1pb1Jwm

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Information from: Herald & Review, https://www.herald-review.com


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