Graduation day


Dennis LeTourneau knows where he’d be today if not for some of the people in the Hennepin County judicial system. “I’d be dead,” he said without hesitation. He is sure heroin would’ve killed him.

LeTourneau was one of 23 people graduating today from the Hennepin County Drug Court, a unique program that people who know what they’re talking about insist is the answer to reducing the problem of repeat criminal activity from addicts. It’s the second graduating class since the program was changed to focus on addicts.

People who choose the drug court system undergo a 12-month program that includes 12-step meetings, therapy, and education classes. They have to report to probation officers and agree to be tested.

“It costs $36,000 to send someone to prison, ” Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson said today. “It costs $6,000-$9,000 to get them through Drug Court.” Nonetheless it’s a tough sell at the Capitol. Magnuson eliminated pay raises for judges in his budget request this year, but included $6 million for Drug Court.

drug_pgm_grads.jpgWhen it comes time to convince legislators, Magnuson could do worse than have them listen to LeTourneau, or Mindy Heinkel, who thanked her probation officers and judges today noting, “It changed my life forever.” James Hill said his probation officer joked with him “we can always execute” during his 12-months in the program.

It wasn’t a hard program for LeTourneau. “The hard part was making the decision (to go through the program), because I was still in that life,” he said. That life was a heroin addiction that started five years ago. He remembers his first shot of heroin and why he took it. “I had a girlfriend who was into it,” he said.

LeTourneau has gotten clean, earned his GED, and started a business. He’s also mentoring others who are in the program, according to his probation officer, Stacey Pratt (shown below congratulating graduate James Hill). “It was easy for him because he made his mind up at the beginning that he would remain determined to turn his life around.”

While receiving plaques at the Hennepin County Government Center this afternoon, many graduates hugged or at least shook hands with a gauntlet of probation officers. A couple muttered “thanks,” and walked away, turning their back without acknowledging the people they had to call every day for a year.

But most also knew where they’d be today otherwise. “I know people in prison who’d give their left arm for this chance,” LeTourneau said.