Drug court celebrates another success
WILLMAR — Bright pink balloons don't normally have a place in a Kandiyohi County courtroom.
But on Wednesday, relatives clutched bouquets of flowers and the smell of freshly brewed coffee filled Courtroom 201 as Shanda Loge, 30, became the newest local graduate of the Eighth Judicial District Drug Court.
Her small daughter, wearing a frilly pink skirt, sat in her lap as she spoke to Judge Gerald Seibel. Her son was also close by.
Seibel does not typically preside over the drug court here; he was filling in for Judge Stephanie Beckman.
But this was fate. Seibel, now retired as a district court judge, was also the judge who first sentenced Loge to prison back in 2004, when she was just 18. He still remembers it. Loge, too.
"It's very hard to send a young person to prison," Seibel told the courtroom Wednesday, filled with Loge's peers from drug court. "Judges know the devastation that addiction has on people."
Loge spoke to that Wednesday.
"Everything I did, I lived and breathed to get high," she said. She had a string of drug and theft convictions.
Her life is now post-drug court. She has personal goals. She wants to find a bigger place to live, and stay sober.
"It's changed me completely as a person," she said.
Loge graduated from the relatively new program's central district, which includes Kandiyohi and Meeker counties. The drug court in the Eighth Judicial District began in July 2014 with 11 participants, and has grown to 30 participants across eight participating counties, divided into three assignment areas.
She has now been sober for a year and a half, but it hasn't been a walk in the park. Drug court is forced accountability. It comes with strict probation requirements and stringent drug testing. She has been drug tested 224 times and appeared over 40 times in court.
On top of that, she had to fight for her children.
"You have been through so many difficult things," Beckman wrote in a letter read at Loge's graduation. "You deserve a very, very bright future."
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and State Sen. Andrew Lang also sent messages to be read Wednesday.
"You, your family and your friends can expect a renewed view on life," Lang wrote.
A panel of social workers, probation officers and attorneys seemed to think that was already evident. In court, they said Loge had more visible passion for life.
"This is your dream come true," one woman said.
The audience of drug court participants also had their chance to meet with the judge before Loge graduated. Drug court participants appear every two weeks with the same group of people, listening to each other's court testimony.
Some had been sober fewer than 100 days. Others, more than 600.
They spoke of custody battles, of studying for their GEDs. Of housing troubles, of money, of halfway houses.
Just minutes earlier was the danger of what could be: Two former drug court participants appeared in Kandiyohi County District Court hearings in orange jumpsuits, facing re-sentencing and possible jail time for leaving the program, violating probation requirements.
Seibel, who presided over drug court in Stevens County before his retirement, talked about drug court as a slow-but-steady race. It's easy to want to sprint through it. It's hard to actually complete.
"You don't have to win the world record," he said.
Yet, the end of Wednesday's drug court was tied up with optimism. Loge had joined only a handful of people as a graduate from the central district. It was an occasion to celebrate.
"I'm proud of what you did, have done, and will do," Seibel said. "And the best testament of that is sitting with you right now," he continued, pointing to her beaming children.