After decades of drugs and crime, Christopher Gillum says he feels reborn.

Gillum, 39, who’s approaching two years of sobriety, was one of 26 people to graduate Friday from Hennepin County Drug Court.

“It feels like a crescendo,” he said. “But also a beginning.”

The voluntary court serves as an alternative to prosecution for felony drug and property charges. Among other requirements, participants must undergo treatment, regularly appear before a drug court judge and remain crime free.

Each graduate got the chance Friday to address family members and friends in the crowd, with many choosing to talk about how the program offered goals and support and kept them accountable.

“Now, I finish things,” Gillum said. “I pull through — good, bad or ugly.”

Linda Bittner, a peer recovery specialist with Minnesota Recovery Connection, a nonprofit that helps people who are recovering from addiction, said she’d be finishing up a prison sentence had she not decided to get help through Hennepin’s drug court.

Bittner graduated from the program two years ago and will be four years sober in June. She said she wakes up each morning with a sense of purpose, a feeling that eluded her before her time in the program.

“I’m so grateful for drug court,” she said. “It gave me the support to live my life.”

The graduation ceremony, which is held two or three times a year, is just as important for those starting the program as it is for the graduates, Drug Court probation supervisor Dan Kempf said.

“We know that this is continuous work,” he said. “Success should be celebrated.”

Hennepin County has offered the current version of its drug court since 1997. Participants need to stay in the program for at least 12 months, although the average time is a little more than 18 months.

People who are at high risk to reoffend or fail standard probation are eligible to take part in the program. Participants also need a clinical diagnosis of chemical dependency. The program doesn’t accept violent offenders.

Participants receive random drug testing and attend support groups. They’re required to find stable housing.

Because of the time commitment and the strict requirements, Drug Court is the most difficult of the county’s treatment courts, presiding Drug Court Judge Marta Chou said. “You’re seeing people turning their life around,” she said.

Bob Sorenson, assistant Hennepin County attorney, said Drug Court makes participants productive citizens and helps foster a desire to succeed.

“It does everything anyone would want to happen as a by-product of the criminal justice system,” he said.


Haley Hansen is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.