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.


  • Joel

    So, why IS it a tough sell at the Capitol?

  • Bob Collins

    Part of it is the “get tough on crime” mentality in some quarters… that you’re always a failure if you’ve been failure for part of your life… that criminals deserve to be in prison and that anything else is being “soft on crime.” Part of it is that despite all of the talk about reforming government and finding new ways of doing things, a change in philosophy is often far, far too drastic for politicians.

    The easiest thing for people to do is that which they’re already doing.

    It takes, it seems to me, special people to see the potential in an addict. And there aren’t enough special people.

  • tiredboomer

    So, why IS it a tough sell at the Capitol?

    Because, success is hard to define. Success is a day or a week or a month or a year or a decade or further in the future. Failures are immediate and certain.

    Like every decision we make in this country, we can’t see past next quarter’s balance sheet.

  • Bruce

    Thanks Bob. Clogging prisons with people who need help more than punishment always bothered me — the wasted lives, money, and opportunity. The drug courts are a brilliant solution, but as noted, a hard sell. Implicit in Joel’s question is the commonsense of the drug court approach — If you know what they do there, why would you not do it?

  • Elizabeth T

    With the current mantra for the government: cut cut cut cut cut … I’m boggled about why they can’t cut the bologna and look at programs like this – $36 vs. $6 ?? times how many dozens of people?

    It is too easy to sit back in complacency and wash our hands of the problem, in a State of Denial. Especially if you talk for a living without needing to actually show anything for your words (i.e. politicians).

  • bsimon

    tiredboomer writes

    “Like every decision we make in this country, we can’t see past next quarter’s balance sheet.”

    While I generally agree with your sentiment, in this case it seems that ‘get tough on crime’ trumps the balance sheet. If we strictly looked at the problem from an ROI perspective, its pretty clear that helping addicts get clean & reenter society as productive members who add to the tax base is a far smarter fiscal move than locking them up & throwing away the key where they cost us enormous sums of money for the rest of their lives.

    Getting past the callous fiscal view, we as a society should place a higher value on the work done by the people that work with addicts, the homeless & the mentally ill; treating them like human beings rather than animals. Bob, thanks for bringing the story to News Cut.

  • tiredboomer


    Good point, I agree with you and all the other posts. I get upset with members of our society that advocate ignoring people in need. In my haste to post I just wasn’t very clear.

    The point I intended to make was, legislators inclined to NOT support this program (for any reason including ‘though on crime’), will argue: “Drug addicts can’t be rehabilitated and this program is no exception (OR, once a drug addict, always a drug addict).” When supporters point to successes, the response will be along the lines of: “sure they’ve been clean for a week (or month, or 6 months), but you have to give the program longer (a year, a decade, a lifetime) to prove it’s really successful.” In the meantime those same legislators will find the failures and put them on display.

    There will be people against this program for no real reason. Clearly cost is not a valid reason, but it will be used. And of course if done properly, the bogus cost argument will earn votes in the next election.

    Perhaps I should change my posting name to “tiredandcynicalboomerwithpoorwritingskills”.

  • kyt

    So what’s next for the graduates? Are there drug convictions categorized as felonies even though they completed the rehab program?

    Will they be able to find employment, or a job that will provide them enough (financial securities) to sustain a life worth not using again?

    I am a person with a 5th degree felony, and am in grad school, yet, have been turned away left and right for employment. I’m a really good person; but i made a bad decision. I’ve never used drugs in my life, just was a mule for someone i cared about once.

    Wrong is wrong, however, a drug conviction should have more leniency than that of a pedophile or one with a violent behavior. Why cannot employers see that?

    People do better when they have employment and consistent income. Without that, they rely to drugs and other illegal activities that will keep them in the cycle.

    I hope these graduates will find new meaning and pathways in creating a healthy life…not to mention, employment.

  • tiah