WILLMAR — The Eighth Judicial District Treatment Court celebrated its 44th person to graduate the program Feb. 24 via Zoom. Normally graduation would be held in person, but due to the pandemic, it was held online.

Deborah Lee Ellingson, 58, of New London, joined the program in November of 2018 following a felony fifth-degree drug possession charge.

Eighth Judicial District Judge Stephen J. Wentzell, who oversees the program, talked about the progress Ellingson has made while in the program and her commitment to the program and herself.

“It’s my pleasure to announce Deb Ellingson as our newest graduate,” Wentzell said.

During the program, she completed 50 volunteer hours at a local thrift store and underwent 144 urine analysis tests while maintaining stable housing.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

“It’s a wonderful program,” Ellingson said, adding that it has kept her accountable. “They’re all wonderful people.”

Those in the program appear regularly before a judge, are supervised by a probation officer, have frequent drug and alcohol tests and have sanctions and rewards for adhering or not to the program, according to the Minnesota Judicial Branch website.

"Research shows that when these strategies are implemented correctly, treatment courts improve public safety and save taxpayer dollars," reads part of the website.

During the Eighth District program's six and half years, 68% of graduates have not been charged with a new crime with 60% having no known relapses.

“Treatment court not only attempts to address crime and chemical dependency, but we support participants in other areas of success as well,” wrote Treatment Court Coordinator Karon White via email.

Twenty-two graduates entered the program without a valid driver’s license, 19 of them graduated with one. Eight graduates obtained their high school diploma or GED. Thirty graduates entered the program without a job, 29 of them secured at least partial employment at the time of graduation with the one left securing employment shortly after graduation.

More than $23,000 in fines, fees and restitution have been paid off or worked off through community service work. The 50 hours of volunteer work required amounts to a $20,000 benefit to the community, according to White.

The program has support locally and statewide with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Kandiyohi County Commissioner Steve Gardner sending letters of support to Ellingson for graduating from the program.

“It’s a great thing, truly worth celebrating, when people succeed in altering their future by defeating their addictions and reclaiming their lives,” wrote Klobuchar in her letter.

Ellingson said her years of addiction put a strain on her relationship with family, especially her kids.

“I’m happy to be sober,” Ellingson said, adding that she’s looking forward to reconnecting with her children.

Eighth Judicial District Assistant Chief Judge Stephanie L. Beckman, who oversaw the program prior to Wentzell, congratulated Ellingson on her graduation.

“I had seen you several times in criminal court and you look quite different today,” Beckman said to Ellingson, later adding that Ellingson should be proud of what she achieved.

“I’m very proud of her,” said Ellingson’s sister Heather, who was at the graduation.