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September 18, 2013 06:00 PM

Drug Court Changing Lives As Program Expands

Sioux Falls, SD

There are often tears inside a courtroom but Wednesday, Sarah Barros wasn't crying because she is at a low point in her life.

"I owe my life to this program," Barros said.

Barros cried in front of a room full of officers, judges, lawyers and family members because she says the Sioux Falls drug court program helped turn her life around.

"This program and all the people involved in it have truly saved my life and helped me to become the Sarah that I am today, the person that I once was, the person that I lost and thought I would never find again, and the person who I am in this very moment today," Barros said.

The moment Barros is celebrating is her 630th sober day and her graduation from drug court.  It's a program that keeps nonviolent drug offenders out of prison and holds them accountable by making them go to regular meetings and court appearances with the threat of jail time hanging over their heads.

"It's not very often you get a win-win deal but this is," South Dakota Chief Justice David Gilbertson said.

Gilbertson attended the graduation of Barros and three others Wednesday in Sioux Falls just as South Dakota prepares to begin a new drug court in Mitchell and start up a DUI court in Sioux Falls and Rapid City in October.  It's all part of the criminal justice initiative passed by the legislature earlier this year.

"Usually when you have a proposal, it's, 'We think it will work,' and here we knew it would work because we had programs that started as experimental that showed it was successful," Gilbertson said.

The successes aren't just measured in savings to the system but also in the benefits to society. Deanna Eaglehorse graduated Wednesday. She says drug court didn't just help her; it helped her young daughter.

"You changed that little girl's life. She doesn't have to grow up with a mom passed out. She doesn't have to see me ruining my life and throwing it away and hurting her," Eaglehorse said.

And that's why Gilbertson wants to see this program reach more mothers, fathers and families across South Dakota.

"It's my goal, and hope, before I leave office as Chief Justice is to have both an alcohol and drug court in every city in the state that's large enough to host one," Gilbertson said.

With the expansion next month, there will be five drug court programs across the state and four DUI courts.

The dozen graduates of the Sioux Falls drug court have saved taxpayers more than $1 million in prison costs since the program was started in 2011.

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