George Lowry Weeks, a man with four DUI convictions, said Wednesday he never thought he would hug a judge.
In front of a packed Yellowstone County courtroom, he and eight other people did just that, taking turns embracing District Judge Mary Jane McCalla Knisely.
The judge recognized the nine people — each convicted of traffic offenses committed while under the influence of drugs or alcohol — for graduating from the Yellowstone County STEER Court, formerly known as Yellowstone County Impaired Driving Court.
The court — renamed to place emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation rather than the offenses that landed people in the program — is now known as Yellowstone County STEER Court.
“STEER” stands for “Sobriety, Treatment, Education, Excellence and Rehabilitation.”
The other eight people who graduated from the program Wednesday are Debra Eldridge, Douglas Helzer, Michael Copeland, Terry Hulse, Justin Cleveland, Darren Blakely, Gary Luce and Ryan Daniel Blumenshine.
“As we know, DUIs and impaired driving offenses are some of the most deadly offenses that can occur,” the judge said. “Cars are weapons, and when you mix (them) with alcohol and drugs, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
In all, 63 people have graduated from the court since its inception in 2011. The program allows qualified, non-violent offenders to get comprehensive treatment and to avoid incarceration if they meet all the tough requirements set by the organizers of the program.
Between them, the nine graduates had 3,434 days of sobriety as of Wednesday and 270 hours of volunteer work in Billings. All of them are employed.
The graduates — some with smiles on their faces and others with tears in their eyes — took turns speaking and each thanked loved ones and members of the treatment court.
Blumenshine, 39, said he has been in and out of the criminal justice system since age 15 and has convictions in five states. He entered the program after being convicted of aggravated DUI.
The first person he thanked for supporting him was his girlfriend, Sarah Cullers.
“What I’ve learned is that if I can change my mind, I can change my direction,” said Blumenshine, who has almost 500 days of sobriety.
As he spoke, his 13-month-old daughter Zoey — one of several children at the graduation ceremony — ran to the front of the courtroom, where he scooped her up.
“And everybody in the drug court, man, hang in there,” he said to members of the program who have yet to graduate. “It’s worth it.”
In 2010, it cost more than $30,200 per person per year for the state Department of Corrections to incarcerate someone, according to information provided at the ceremony.
The nine graduates combined paid a little more than $20,500 in fees for all the time they spent in the program. On average, it takes a person 12-18 months to graduate.
The amount that it costs per person per year to put someone through the STEER court wasn’t immediately available Wednesday.
The court has 41 active members and has a budget this year of about $258,000, Knisely said after the ceremony.
But the court, which is funded by federal money funneled through the Montana Department of Transportation, is facing a possible budget reduction to $147,000 for the next fiscal year, she said, which would cut the number of people that can be enrolled in the program.
A meeting with state officials to address funding is scheduled for July 29, Knisely said.
Jeff Kushner, Montana’s Drug Court Coordinator, spoke at the ceremony, commending the graduates and organizers of the program and asserting that research shows the value and effectiveness of treatment courts.
Copeland, who came into the program after being convicted of a seventh DUI and has almost a year of sobriety, said STEER court was exactly what he needed.
"It's changed my life," he said, turning to face the judge.
The graduates were also recognized by a prosecutor, Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Victoria Callendar.
"Most of you who have recognized your disease know that there’s only two roads for you," she said. "One is prison, the other is the grave. And that’s harsh, but it’s the reality."
She encouraged the graduates to celebrate their accomplishment, but to be vigilant in their efforts to stay sober.
"I love the children that are here …. Children deserve sober moms and dads."