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Corunna — A crowd of around 100 people filling a Shiawassee County courtroom rose to their feet to applaud a graduation class of one.

The graduate named Joe had been working toward this day for 15 months, but it’s an addiction to heroin that began nearly 17 years ago that he’s continued to work on overcoming every single day.

Following a guilty plea on multiple retail crime charges, the 33-year-old Owosso resident entered the Shiawassee County drug court.

The program started in October 2015, with its first participants enrolled in April 2016, offering those facing jail time for alcohol or drug-related crimes an alternative to jail and opportunity for recovery from addictions.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am of our participant,” Shiawassee Circuit Judge Matthew Stewart said Aug. 2 while joined by Sheriff Brian BeGole, prosecutor Deana Finnegan, defense attorney Matt McKone, addiction specialists from Recovery Pathways and Shiawassee County Health Department officials.

Joe was facing several years in prison, but he instead became part of the program that currently has 16 other members. His last name is being withheld at the request of court officials to maintain his privacy.

“It’s been a struggle, it’s been a rough road, but thankfully I could overcome and conquer,” he said. He had with a rigorous drug testing schedule and weekly reports to a probation officer.

“One hundred percent worth it. It made me a better person, with my family, with my wife. It made me a better son, husband. Just changed my whole outlook on life.”

Stewart noted most of the people coming through the drug court program have spent some time in jail as part of the criminal process, but the new idea for Shiawassee County allows them to work full-time and take part in recovery programs.

Sitting alongside Joe in the courtroom, McKone became tearful while talking about how far the man who now lives down the street from him has come and the impact the drug court could have on the region and its struggles with an opioid “epidemic.”

“These folks are my neighbors. I’m going to see them at Walmart and Meijer and VGs,” he said. “I want them to contribute to my society. I also thought if someone goes to prison, they’re coming back to Shiawassee County. They’re coming back here because this is where all the resources are. Do I want somebody who has been rehabilitated or somebody who has been made a better criminal to be my neighbor?”

Approximately 70 percent of the cases Stewart sees in his courtroom have to deal with drug or alcohol issues, with time behind bars costing thousands of dollars per each inmate.

While there have been some doubting the effectiveness of the program that does not accept drug dealers or violent offenders, Stewart said getting the people in his courtroom back on their feet again is not only helping them but others at the same time.

“Understand that addiction is generational. When these folks get out of prison, if they’re not admitted into the program, treatment, they’ll go home and they will teach their families substance abuse, bad habits,” he said. “But if we treat them and we teach them how to maintain a sober and recovering life style, they’ll take that home too and teach their family about recovery and sobriety. What I tell the naysayers is check out today. We’ve got a graduate and we’ve got 16 more that are right behind him.”

Joe told reporters he’d be back in the courtroom, but it would be to share his story with others about the opportunity and not to take it for granted.

On a new path for his future, Joe said he wants to find a good job to provide for his family because it wasn’t the possibility of jail time that drove him to complete the program.

“I wanted to be a better person for my family, my wife, my kids,” he stated, adding everyone in the program have helped accomplish part of that goal.

“They’re my friends,” Joe said. “They’ve had my back the whole time through this. I never felt they wished ill will on me at all. They’ve done nothing but wanted the best for me and I gave them the best I had.”

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