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Westmoreland drug court graduate: ‘My family trusts me again’

Renatta Signorini
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Tribune-Review
J.R. Minniti is a graduate of the Westmoreland County Drug Treatment Court.
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Tribune-Review
J.R. Minniti displays the medal he got as a graduate of the Westmoreland County Drug Treatment Court.
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Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
J.R. Minniti, 32, of Monessen, is congratulated by Judge Christopher Felician, during the drug court graduation ceremony at Westmorealnd County Courthouse, in Greensburg, on Thursday, March 29, 2018.
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Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
J.R. Minniti, 32, of Monessen, is congratulated by Judge Christopher Felician, during the drug court graduation ceremony at Westmorealnd County Courthouse, in Greensburg, on Thursday, March 29, 2018.

J.R. Minniti is counting his sobriety by the months now.

The Monessen man is two months short of being two years sober.

“It means everything to me; my family trusts me again,” Minniti, 32, said Thursday after graduating from Westmoreland County Drug Treatment Court.

Minniti works two jobs and has turned his life away from addiction with help from the special court program, but he still deals with people remembering him for who he used to be.

“Those are the choices I made in my past so I’ll deal with it, and I’ve been able to get past it,” he said.

Minniti was one of nine people who recently graduated from the intensive program that was initiated to handle a surge in criminal court cases and addicted inmates as a result of the opioid epidemic. Thursday’s courthouse ceremony marked the fourth graduating class from the program since it began in 2015.

Last year, 21 people graduated from the special court, which is overseen by common pleas court judges Meagan Bilik-DeFazio and Christopher Feliciani.

Three of the nine graduates attended the ceremony.

“They’re not here today; they’re at work. But they’re doing good things,” Bilik-DeFazio said of the graduates who weren’t present.

Defendants can get mitigated sentences in exchange for their participation. But first, they must go through a rigorous process that includes months of close supervision by probation officials and a judge, as well as attend regular therapy sessions, undergo drug tests and keep a diary.

“The supervision is very intense at first and then it backs off gradually, which is what a lot of people need,” said Minniti, who had been in the program since July 2016. “It’s clearly what I needed.”

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The program costs about $300,000 to operate annually and is funded through court costs paid by defendants, private donations and money from the county’s budget. A probation officer was added this year, increasing the case load split between two judges from 50 to about 60. Drug treatment court coordinator Eric Leydig said that move has trimmed the waiting list to nine people.

Officials plan to start permitting defendants with their first or second driving under the influence of drug offense, Leydig said.

Feliciani expressed pride in Minniti’s accomplishments while Minniti’s father, a sheriff’s deputy, watched in the courtroom.

“I can tell you that (J.R.) has worked very hard to make it happen and be here today,” Feliciani said.

It hasn’t been easy, Richard Minniti said after watching his son receive a diploma and medal.

“Seeing him like this is well worth the time and the effort,” he said. “He’s grown up; he takes on more responsibility.”

Without the program, J.R. Minniti said he would have just worked through his court case and continued living as he previously had. The judges aren’t “punishers” in the special court, but rather truly want to help participants, he said.

“It genuinely does help you if you want it,” Minniti said. “That’s the main thing with any type of addiction, you have to want it. If you don’t want your sobriety then you’re just setting yourself up for a relapse.”

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-837-5374, [email protected] or via Twitter @byrenatta.

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