Beaming graduate

Ben Miller, right, holds his diploma while posing with Judge Steven Wentzell following a graduation ceremony honoring Miller’s completion of the Eighth Judicial District Treatment Court program.

Drug and alcohol use and related trouble led Ben Miller to spending much of his teen and adult years in the court system.

But in early September the 37-year-old Litchfield man moved to a life beyond the courtroom, as the 54th graduate of the Eighth Judicial District’s Treatment Court program, also known as “drug court.”

Miller, who had spent more than two years in the program, received a diploma and a hearty handshake from Judge Steven Wentzell following a drug court session held in Litchfield’s Central Park, a serene setting created by COVID-19 precautions.

“It means a lot to me,” Miller said as he held the framed diploma. “It means I achieved something I set out to do, that I was able to make it.”

Drug court is an 18- to 24-month program that seeks to help chemically dependent individuals who might be at higher risk of reoffending, through intensive supervision and oversight. The program includes phases that need to be followed by participants such as treatment, establishing in the community, job and housing stability, and ultimately living a lifestyle of recovery.

The Eighth Judicial District Treatment program is marking its seventh year of operation this year, a term in which participants and administrators agree has seen significant positive change. According to statistics provided by the court, of the 54 graduates of the program during the past seven years, 70 percent have not been charged with a new crime, and 63 percent have no known relapses.

In addition to the reduction in the cycle of criminal activity and chemical dependency, administrators say, the program has had other positive benefits for participants. Twenty-two graduates entered the program without a valid driver’s license, but 19 had earned a license by the time they graduated. Nine graduates earned a high school diploma or GED while participating in the program.

Thirty-three of the 54 graduates entered the program unemployed, but 29 of them were working at least part time when they graduated, while another took a part-time job shortly after graduation, according to Karon White, treatment court coordinator.

More than $23,000 in fines, fees and restitution have been paid or worked off through community work service by participants. All participants also are required to complete a 50-hour volunteer project.

“Drug court is one of the most researched programs in the country to be proven to be effective, and evidence-based programs,” White said. “So we believe in that program, and we’re going to continue to push forward to continue the program as long as we can.”

The program’s most recent graduate is just one of many examples of the difference it can make.

Miller began the program in April 2019 with a lengthy history of chemical use. He entered the court system as a 13-year-old and couldn’t find his way out. Charges of felony domestic assault and fleeing a police officer brought him into Treatment Court.

He didn’t immediately qualify for the program, which normally does not allow offenders with a crime of violence on their record. But Miller wrote a few letters asking the judge to make an exception, he said, because he had reached a point where he knew he needed help.

“I wanted to change my life for the better,” Miller said. “I wanted the community to stop looking down on me, for my past and my family’s past. I wanted to change something, I wanted to be looked at as a positive influence in the community.”

As much as he wanted the change, however, it didn’t come easily.

“Ben struggled in the program initially and was given multiple technical violations in the beginning of the program,” White said. “However, he continued to try, and so we continued to try.”

The “we” referred to by White is the Treatment Court team that includes the judge, prosecuting attorney, defense attorney, treatment providers, social workers, case management workers, law enforcement agents and White.

That team meets prior to every court session, of which there are three each month, to discuss progress — or problems — of each program participant.

Treatment Court sessions see each of the program participants take their turn on the witness stand to talk with the judge. The questioning isn’t the adversarial type portrayed in TV courtroom dramas, however.

During the early-September court session, following which Miller graduated, Judge Wentzell called each of the roughly dozen participants to the stand and talked to them. His questions often led to celebrating a participant’s successes, but in a few instances they were strong reminders of the commitment each one had made to following program requirements.

“For the most part, you want the participants to say the most and be talking the most,” said Wentzell, who was appointed to the bench in 2017 and accepted drug court duty in summer of 2020. “Most of their motivation comes from when they speak and are able to realize, kind of process themselves, what’s going on with their lives and all the major changes. I think that’s the goal of drug court too, is not really to lecture, it’s not really to point out what they’ve done well, or what they haven’t done well, it’s for them to … have that self-realization and be able to reflect that during our sessions.”

Those conversations in front of other participants who are dealing with the same issues can be a powerful element of change, Wentzell said. The local drug court follows national practices, which show that a conversation of at least three minutes can improve a participant’s success and chances of continued sobriety, he added.

“(The goal is to) keep them accountable, be there to support them,” White, the program coordinator, said. “You know, a lot of individuals that are in our program have more things going on than just their chemical dependency. I mean, unstable housing, unstable employment, lack of education. So we try to really look at that as a whole … if we don’t have those basic food, shelter and clothing, we’re not going to get up that ladder at all.”

For Miller, the accountability piece was important. It helped him stay on the right path, but it also created a different image for his four children. In addition to the three court sessions each month, participants are visited regularly by law enforcement or parole officers.

“One of the things I appreciated and like the most about it was the officer, Sam, coming out and stopping at the house to build a relationship that was other than just getting put in cuffs and drug off,” Miller said. “I was building a relationship with the police officers in town that was a positive relationship. That really helped my kids, because before that they always seen Dad get taken away, in the cop car … when the cops show up, Dad’s going away.”

Some of those officers and other court officials were in Central Park to see him graduate in September, and offer their congratulations.

At the time of his graduation, Miller had reached 450 days of sobriety, the longest period of his adult life. Miller is also a key holder at the church where Narcotics Anonymous meetings are held. His dedication to volunteer work — over and above the 50 hours of court-ordered community service — was lauded during the graduation ceremony.

“(Miller) can often be found helping others when they are struggling,” White wrote in a statement used during the graduation. “He is not just sober but living a lifestyle of recovery. He does this, however, while maintaining his own unique personality.”

Among those at the graduation ceremony was Tracy Wheeler, Miller’s aunt, who proudly attested to the change in her nephew.

“It’s been a very long road,” Wheeler said. “And as far as the family knew, this was his last resort. This is his last chance to finally, finally get himself clean. And he did it. He’s got a lot of energy, and he was able to channel that energy in the right direction. He was able, with the help from all these people in the drug court, to use his energy for good.”