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CHARLESTON — Thursday's court proceeding began with a regular session of Coles County's drug court program, with Circuit Judge Brien O'Brien explaining how three people were now in jail because of "justified" sanctions.

He next met with a man who admitted using drugs while in the program, asking him "what were you trying to accomplish."

"Tell me what you should have done," O'Brien said to the man, referring to the drug court's support system.

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The judge also allowed another participant to move from one phase of the program to another, less restrictive one after asking her why she felt she was ready for it.

"I feel like I'm living a life I never thought I would," she said.

Shortly after that, O'Brien and others turned to another recognition, one of the 15th anniversary of the start of the program designed to help people end drug abuse.

Noting the connection between drug use and many types of crimes, he told how those who go through drug court are far less likely to commit more crimes than those who serve prison time.

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"Rather than accepting this vicious cycle, drug court strives to change that," O'Brien said. "Our goal is to change behavior on a long term or hopefully a permanent basis."

O'Brien currently oversees the drug court program that had its first participant placed on Oct. 29, 2004. In some cases, those who take part can avoid a record of a conviction if they complete the program successfully.

Of the 197 participants, 133 graduated from the program, he said. He added that, "more significantly," 85 percent of graduates did not commit new felony offenses within two years.

There's misinformation about the program, O'Brien also said, and many see it as a "slap on the wrist." However, it actually involves "an extremely high level of supervision," he said.

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After being accepted into the program, drug defendants face counseling, curfews, frequent home visits and court appearances, community service, treatment and more, O'Brien said.

In addition to county officials, several current and past drug court participants attended Thursday's ceremony at the county courthouse.

Jill Buchar, a 2013 graduate of the program, said before she entered drug court she "got by but I never changed." At one point, she related, her probation officer told her, "you're going to die," and "she was right," Buchar said.

"I put myself around really good people," she said. "I kept myself around people who held me accountable."

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During her time in drug court, she passed testing for the job she now has, Buchar added.

County probation officer Maria Moran, the current drug court officer, said the program works because it places external controls on drug users.

"We're going to box you in really hard and tight" until the time comes when the participant shows "I can do this," she said.

Circuit Judge Mitchell Shick attended the ceremony and recalled how he and others first explored drug court as "just as idea" of how to possibly address the methamphetamine epidemic of the time.

"I'm absolutely proud of where drug court is," he said.

Steve Kelly, retired probation office director who was the program's first drug officer, said he and others "had no idea" at the time if the program would work.

"Like any good program, it evolves, it gets better," he said.

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