Court officials see success of treatment courts

Pictured are Shiawassee County treatment court staff members, from left, Liz Pearson, Sara Colbry, Judge Matthew Stewart and Stephanie Hartz.

CORUNNA — Shiawassee County court officials say 27 people who otherwise might have ended up in jail or prison successfully completed diversion programs through various treatment courts in 2021 — and they expect more success stories in 2022.

Treatment court compliance manager Sari Colbry, who previously worked as a corrections officer in Genesee County, said she’s motivated to keep people out of jail.

“It’s depressing to see people in cages,” she said. “Your whole attitude changes.”

Officials say there were 14 participants and 10 graduates through the Drug Court program. A graduation ceremony is scheduled for Jan. 27. Eleven people are currently waiting to start in the program.

Mental Health Court had seven participants, with five graduates. Four individuals are currently approved, but have not yet started court programs.

The Focus & Lead Youth Toward Empowerment & Enlightenment program had 11 members, with three graduates. The Swift & Sure probation program had 15 participants and nine graduates in 2021.

Colbry also touted the county’s SCOUT tether and COLORS drug-testing programs, with 11 ankle monitors being issued last year to defendants awaiting disposition of their cases.

Thirty-fifth Circuit Court Judge Matthew Stewart, along with former county prosecutor Deana Finnegan, launched the original Drug Court in 2016, before Mental Health Court began.

The FLYTEE program was instituted in 2021, and a Veterans Court — to deal with issues specific to those who served — is being developed.

Stewart gave credit for the success to the various program compliance managers, including Liz Pearson, Colbry, Krissi Lab and newcomer Stephanie Hartz.

Hartz works in district court probation, and is teaming up with Stewart and his staff to launch treatment courts for district court.

“For (participants) to know there is a second chance is my first goal,” Pearson said. “I want them to know there’s hope and this is a team that wants to help them … You can earn it, but they have to do the work. What I would hope for all of our participants is for them to see that hope for themselves, and be willing and able to grab a hold of that help. When there’s a need to get a job done, this county really comes together.”

Since the inception of Drug Court in 2016, no graduate of the program has been charged after completion with a drug-related crime.

One Owosso man in his 30s that graduated from Drug Court in 2021 said he was facing a felony operating while intoxicated charge and decided he needed something to change. He said he divorced in 2013 and battled depression and alcohol abuse for years.

The Argus-Press does not publish names or photos of program participants and only does so with graduates if they specifically request their names be used.

“At that time I had been trying to get sober for 10 years,” he said. “Nothing was working and it was a self-destructive cycle.”

After being accepted into the program, he said the compliance managers showed tough love and held him accountable. The man completed Drug Court in just over two years with no violations and only two minor sanctions, attending hundreds of counseling sessions and passing hundreds of drug and alcohol screens.

“It was either do the time in jail, which I could do, but I’d just come out and be raging alcoholic,” he said. “I went for drug court and it was probably the best decision of my life. I’m glad I did it and if I had to do it over, I’d do it again.”

When times were rough and he thought about quitting, the man said Colbry “pretty much set (him) straight.” He now has almost three years of sobriety, has remarried, works full time and has opened his own business.

“The staff with Sari and Liz, what they do for their profession is top of the line,” he added. “They hold you accountable, which is great. At the end they give you the credit. They don’t get a lot of credit for what they deal with. Stewart is an amazing man and I hope he holds that bench for a long time. He and his staff hold a special place in my heart. Just to see somebody with the power he has, for him to have compassion and understanding is by far the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced.”

The various treatment courts have been limited to circuit court and mostly deal with felony charges. Now, with treatment courts starting in district court, officials are confident more residents can get help and treatment before they end up facing serious felony charges, and possibly being sent to prison.

“We are very excited at district court,” Hartz said. “Judge (Ward) Clarkson came to me and let me know this was coming about and (asked) how I would feel about participating. I think it’s a fabulous idea. I wish we had done it before. There are so many people that come through that need these services. They really need treatment. Until I started speaking with Liz and getting more information, I had no idea about some of these services that are offered. This is a big deal. I’m so excited to be part of it.”

Stewart noted it costs taxpayers about $35,000 per year for the Michigan Department of Corrections to house an inmate. If the inmate requires mental health counseling, the amount is about $120,000 per year.

“For fiscal year 2021, the treatment courts received over $1 million in state and federal grants,” Stewart said. “That’s money that stays in the community, that funds treatment courts, funds treatment and helps our participants through troubled times. The bean counters at the state and federal level understand that giving money to treatment courts that divert from prison is cheaper than housing someone in the Department of Corrections.”

Stewart also said a housing shortage in Shiawassee County contributes to young people needing mental health treatment.

“A lot of kids have parents who are addicts and they’ve lost everything,” Stewart said. “If they aren’t lucky enough to have a grandparent they can stay with, they’re on the street.”

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