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2 graduate from Westmoreland's drug court program

| Thursday, June 15, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
Kyle Hodges | Tribune-Review
Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio presents Chris Andring, 44, of New Kensington with a medal and certificate on Thursday, June 15, 2017, during the inaugural drug court program’s graduation at the Westmoreland County Courthouse in Greensburg. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them,” Andring said.
Kyle Hodges | Tribune-Review
Judges Christopher Feliciani and Meagan Bilik-DeFazio congratulate Jeffrey Patterson for graduating from the drug treatment court program in the Westmoreland County Courthouse in Greensburg on Thursday, June 15, 2017.
Kyle Hodges | Tribune-Review
Jeffrey Patterson of Greensburg thanks fellow drug treatment court participants and his mentors on Thursday, June 15, 2017, during the program's inaugural graduation in the Westmoreland County Courthouse in Greensburg.

Eighteen months ago, Jeffrey Patterson faced a life-altering decision.

He could roll the dice with a judge and take his drug charges to court, potentially landing in jail, or enroll in Westmoreland County's fledgling drug court program as one of its first entrants.

“A week before I had to make a decision, I panicked that I wouldn't be able to use my drug of choice anymore, so I decided I wouldn't go into the program. That way, I would have another three to six months of doing my drug of choice,” Patterson said.

But as decision day came, Patterson reversed course and entered drug court at the urging of court staff and therapists.

On Thursday, 58-year-old Patterson of Greensburg and Chris Andring, 44, of New Kensington became the first two graduates of the drug court program.

“It was pretty hopeless,” Patterson said of his life in September 2015. He was addicted to crack cocaine and faced years behind bars on drug possession charges.

“I couldn't love anybody, and I couldn't be loved. This program gave me a new outlook in life,” he said.

Patterson has been drug-free for 18 months, the duration of his time in the drug court program. As required, he underwent regular therapy sessions, drug tests, oversight by probation officials and a judge, and routinely wrote in a diary about his successes and struggles.

The special court was initiated in 2015 as county officials struggled with a growing drug epidemic that has flooded courtrooms with cases and prisons with addicted defendants. The number of fatal drug overdoses in Westmoreland County has set record highs every year since 2009. The county recorded 176 fatal drug overdoses in 2016, and the rate this year is on track to surpass that, according to the coroner's office.

Westmoreland County's drug court can handle 50 defendants.

“This graduation proves what we knew all along: drug court works. I'd like to have it expanded, because we have a waiting list of more than 20 people. I'd like to see the capacity doubled,” said Common Pleas Court Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio, who oversees the program along with Judge Christopher Feliciani.

The drug court program costs $300,000 to operate annually and is funded through court costs paid by defendants, private donations and money from the county's budget. Commissioner Gina Cerilli said additional funding to expand drug court will have to come from the state budget.

“In our ongoing drug epidemic, drug court is the one thing we can see is working. I'd love to see it expanded,” Cerilli said.

Participants say it's been a life-saver.

Two years ago, Andring sat in jail waiting for a judge to determine his punishment for selling cocaine. He agreed to participate in drug court as part of a plea bargain that got him probation rather than jail.

“Once you are in addiction for 25 years, that's all you know. This program taught me how to live without addiction in my life,” Andring said. “It's a new beginning for me, and now anything is possible.”

Andring has been clean and sober for two years.

“I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them,” Andring said of the drug court staff and fellow program participants.

Patterson and Andring were presented with certificates of graduation and medals for their accomplishment — and applications for a new scholarship program unveiled Thursday to help pay graduates' future education expenses.

Tim Phillips, executive director of the county's drug overdose task force, said private donations were solicited to pay for the scholarships.

“Once they graduate, they need to move on, and this is a great opportunity for them,” Phillips said.

Although the graduates no longer are required to report regularly to probation officials and appear before a judge, they won't be left on their own.

Bilik-DeFazio said an aftercare program created at Carnegie Mellon University and implemented by the overdose task force will give graduates assistance.

The drug court is expected to graduate participants about four times a year, with another ceremony tentatively set for August or September, officials said.

“This is one of the few times you get to see happy endings in criminal court,” Bilik-DeFazio said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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