POTTER COUNTY — Four people graduated from the county’s treatment courts on Tuesday morning, celebrating sobriety and a new outlook on life.
Potter County has a DUI treatment court and a drug treatment court. As the name suggests, the treatment courts are for people with substance use disorders. The goal “is to supervise the treatment and rehabilitation of carefully screened and selected defendants to try to change their behavior. Instead of a jail sentence, defendants are given counseling, treatment for their addictions or illnesses, educational assistance and healthcare support,” according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
Potter County Senior Judge and Treatment Court Judge John Leete has seen time and time again the positive impact the treatment courts have on the participants and the county as a whole.
“As a judge — and this will be my 33rd year — it’s absolutely the best thing I’ve done,” he told the Potter Leader-Enterprise. “We’re seeing lives rebuilt, we’re seeing families put back together, people become gainfully employed, people are out of the criminal justice system. The benefits are pretty endless.”
Colleen Wilber, Drug and Alcohol administrator and treatment court co-coordinator, agreed and said it’s the best thing she’s seen for long-lasting sobriety.
The four graduates, whose names will not be used, had a final stand up in front of Judge Leete before graduating and sharing their story and words of encouragement to other treatment court participants and family members in the courtroom.
One graduate shared that when their grandfather — who was a huge influence in their life — died in 2014, the drinking followed. They had a couple of DUIs, their marriage was falling apart, they were often too drunk to be around their young daughter and were on the brink of losing their house. The offer to enroll in the DUI treatment court changed their life.
“Since I started this program, from start to finish, (being sober) went from what I needed to do, to what I wanted to do. It became a lifestyle that I don’t plan on stopping,” they said.
It wasn’t easy, they said, and they had a relapse when COVID-19 hit and meetings turned virtual. But “a higher power showed up” — Derick Morey, the probation officer — and they got back on track.
Another graduate said they were thankful and grateful for the program for opening up their eyes and prompting change to their life. They spoke about changing their “people, places and things” — a common theme and goal of the program — and the importance of getting a sponsor and attending meetings.
A third graduate said a year and seven months ago, they didn’t think they would be here today.
“The day I came into this courtroom and was inducted into treatment court, it was the start of a new life. It was the start of a better life, something I never would have imagined for myself,” they said. They said they never thought they would have gone through with a divorce, cut ties with family members, get remarried, be a resectable community member, have a job they enjoy or have a house.
“It’s hard, but if you put the work into it, if you actually, truly want it for yourself, you’re going to be amazed at what comes after,” they said.
Another graduate said the program showed them what they wanted and needed to do.
“I had a very hard time at the beginning. But as I moved through it, I started seeing changes for myself, my daughter, my family. Relationships got better, there were a lot of things I started accomplishing that I never thought I would have done,” they said.
The county’s DUI court began in 2013 and the drug court began in 2015. AOPC accredited the county’s DUI court in 2016 and again in 2019, with the accreditation lasting for three years, Wilber said.
Treatment courts are more successful than putting people in jail, Leete said. Of the 39 drug court participants, 32 have graduated. Of the 37 DUI court participants, 21 graduated. They track people for two years post graduation and only two participants were arrested for a misdemeanor.
Prior to the treatment court, participants will go to jail or an inpatient recovery. But instead of doing a year in jail, they’ll do 15 days and will be enrolled in the program. There’s a very intense screening process, which looks at all aspects of the person and case before they’re let into the treatment program.
“The people in this program would all be doing lengthy jail or state prison sentences if they weren’t in the program,” Leete said. The DUI court has saved at least 10,548 jail days and the drug court has, at minimum, saved 5,454 jail days. At max, they saved 41,658 and 12,474 jail days, respectively. That’s based on what each participants’ minimum and maximum jail sentence would have been.
Participants are in the treatment courts for at minimum one year and it’s personal progress based, Leete said. Very few people graduate within one year, he said. The average number of days in the county’s DUI program is 401 and 447 days in the drug court.
Incentives are given for positive accomplishments and sanctions are given for negative.
“When somebody gets in trouble, the judge doesn’t automatically give a court order to send them somewhere. He gives a sanction, so you might have 20 hours of community service or you have to write an essay about recovery,” Wilber said. Or, they might have to spend the weekend in jail, which Leete said is “reality therapy.”
Members of the treatment team are Potter County Court Of Common Pleas Judge Stephen Minor, Potter County Senior Judge John Leete (also serves as the treatment court judge), District Attorney Andy Watson, Public Defender Walter Stenhach, County Detective Jacob Rothermel, SCA Drug And Alcohol Administrator Colleen Wilber (also serves as treatment court co-coordinator), SCA Case Management Specialist Crystal Thomas, Chief Of Probation Brian Abel, Treatment Court Probation Officer and Court Co-coordinator Derick Morey, and Therapists Darlene Manning (2013-2020) and Jennifer Greenman (current) of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services, Inc.