Jail was almost the final destination for three men who struggled with drug addiction, but a local rehabilitation program is now the reason for their freedom and sobriety. It serves as a resource that replaces time behind bars, by addressing the roots of addiction, rather than punishing them for it.
That resource, is drug court and three men said goodbye to Pekin Drug Court on Wednesday, vowing to never walk through the doors again.
Before they could get to that point, however, each of them were screened, to determine their addictions were valid and once enrolled, they began what they described as a 'tough battle' from day one - detoxing.
"It took me months to understand what it meant to give up everything to create a better life." said Benjamin Baechler, one of the graduates.
He experienced an emotion-filled morning, alongside two of his colleagues, as they wrapped up months of counseling and guidance while working toward their sobriety.
Beyond getting past the physical withdrawal, they also spent months undergoing treatment and submitting to drug testing to make sure they were staying clean.
"Drug testing all along the way. Random drug testing. They have to make a call everyday. We even test on weekend and holidays." said Pekin Circuit Judge Michael Risinger.
Risinger has worked with the men for more than a year, closely following their progress and giving tough love when needed. It was apparent during the graduation ceremoney, that while he wasn't always their favorite person throughout the process, they'd each developed a deep bond with the judge, for his continued support and for holding them accountable.
Risinger subscribes to the philosophy that law enforcement needs to focus on getting people off drugs, not just sending them to jail where they will serve time, get released and likely relapse.
He adds, drug court is a proven system that helps people overcome addiction and later contribute back to society.
Baechler says he was introduced to drugs in 6th grade; trying and failing multiple times to overcome his addiction - until now.
"Heroin, cocaine, alcohol, pills, marijuana. My favorite drug was 'more'. Give me more." he shared openly.
His mother, girlfriend and children sat in the audience with their eyes glued to him throughout the event. Baechler says their support was a main part of the reason he's been successful this time around.
In fact it was Baechler's mother, Donna Baker, who turned him into police.
Baker is just a few days shy of celebrating her 19th year of sobriety. She said while she understood the demons he was facing, she couldn't watch her son make the same mistakes she once had.
"He was in a very dark place and I knew that if I didn't do something, he was going to die." Baker explained.
Fast forward 21 months later, her son sings her praises and expresses his gratitude for not being tossed into a cell, but instead, given a second chance.
Another philosophy Judge Risinger agrees with - second chances. "We have to quit warehousing people. We have to do something better. This is what's working."
The jugde didn't spare the emotions when expressing how proud of the graduates he was. "I love them. I'm their biggest fan." he beamed. Baechler's mother also took a moment to remind people currently battling addiction, that there's light at the end of the tunnel.
"As long as they're breathing, there's hope of recovery." she declared.
The recent graduates say they are now entering the beginning of the first day, of the rest of their productive lives - most importantly - drug free!
If you or someone you know is interested in enrolling in drug court, Judge Risinger suggests they work with their Probation officer. In order to qualify, an individual must have been charged with a felony and have an addiction. For further details please visit Tazewell County Courthouse Website or call (309) 477-2201.