AUGUSTA — Justice Nancy Mills, who presides at the Kennebec County Co-Occurring Disorders and Veterans Court, looked at the 11 people graduating from those court diversion programs.

“Everyone today has a smile, but it wasn’t always like that,” she said as she described some of their struggles to complete the rigorous requirements of the courts for the 100 or so people watching Monday’s ceremony in Kennebec County Superior Court.

With 14 participants — three graduating at a separate ceremony later — it was the largest graduation class ever.

Ten men successfully completed the Veterans Court, and four people successfully completed the Co-Occurring Disorders Court.

“Our 14 graduates today faced a potential maximum combined total of 532 months of incarceration, more than 44.3 years, if they had failed in the Co-Occurring Disorders and Veterans Court and had been given the worst case sentences, some of which involved open pleas to serious felony charges,” Mills said. “Instead, these graduates served a total of 1,440 days or 3.9 years, based on the best case sentences.”

Mills offered some other numbers as well, saying 104 defendants were admitted to the Co-Occurring Court with 43 terminated before graduating. The Veterans Court admitted 26 people with three terminated before graduating.

Veterans Court graduate Joseph Harmon, 32, of Lewiston, proudly pointed out his 7-month-old son and said he was grateful to the court for helping him turn his life around. “It’s a great opportunity they offered to us to get our lives back in order,” Harmon said.

Harmon was convicted of drug trafficking charges and entered veterans’ court in September 2013. After serving some initial jail time and completing the program, he’s looking forward to his wedding. Fellow veterans court graduate Jason Richardson, 37, of Augusta, will be his best man. Those two and others in the program worked on building a gazebo on the grounds of a sober living house for veterans in Hallowell.

The gazebo is a memorial to two former veterans court participants who died of drug overdoses.

Jennifer Higgins, 32, of Augusta, entered the court program in July 2013 after pleading guilty to theft charges and completed it late last month. On Monday she said her goal is to go back to college to become certified as a drug and alcohol counselor. Higgins said the court participants have become like family.

“We do all we can to help each other out,” she said.

Higgins had turned to Alcoholics Anonymous to help her overcome her drug problems, Mills said, and regained a good relationship with her family.

“If the CODC had a prom, this would be the prom queen,” Mills said. “I will miss her because I know she is leaving this court, and I will not be seeing her on any future criminal dockets.”

Mills introduced the graduates in the courtroom by first names only.

One man left his home in Portland to move to Augusta to participate in the program, living first at the homeless shelter in Augusta. Now he has an apartment and a passion for working on the Bond Brook Trails and at the Viles Arboretum, both in Augusta.

Mills said that two years after entering the court, he is “180 degrees from hungry, homeless and depressed.”

Mills recounted the service records of the veterans court participants, including all the medals they received, and noted that some got into drugs as a result of self-medicating for post-traumatic stress disorder as well as a result of being given medication for injuries they suffered. Several of the graduates work at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Maine Healthcare System at Togus.

During the graduation ceremony, Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley presented an award from the Maine Judicial Branch to attorneys Joe Hahn, of Freeport, and Jack Richards, of Hallowell, and to Norman “Ziggy” Lawrence, of Albion. The three men, all veterans themselves, volunteer as mentors for the veterans court participants, offering transportation, advice and encouragement.

“I consider it to be a privilege to work with the guys I work with,” Lawrence said. He responds to calls for help from the veterans court participants after hours and on weekends and brought movies into the veterans bloc in the Kennebec County jail on Christmas night and New Year’s night.

“If you give somebody your number and say, ‘Call me,’ it doesn’t mean just from 8 to 5,” Lawrence said.

The Co-Occurring Disorders Court began in 2005 and handles defendants with mental health and substance abuse problems. The Veterans Court portion began in 2011.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

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Twitter: @betadams