“When I sat here in this chair, I made a choice to do something different for me,” says Matthew Wygant, 32, speaking just after he graduated from the MiHOPE program.
That chair was in a courtroom at the Midland County Courthouse. That’s where Wygant received the paperwork to join MiHOPE, the Midland County Honest Opportunity Probation with Enforcement program. MiHOPE is a jail diversion program that was started in Dec. 2015.
Matthew Wygant, center, and his friends listen as Zoom participants discuss their experiences with him since his admittance to the Midland County Honest Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (MiHOPE) program.
“Judge Steven Alm in Honolulu, Hawaii ... started [HOPE],” says Chief Judge Stephen P. Carras of Midland County’s 42nd Circuit Court. “I was at a judge’s conference and I heard him speak, and it was just like ‘we have to do this; this is it.’”
The program is funded through a grant awarded by the State of Michigan. For the fiscal year 2021, the grant award was $215,000.
Chief Judge Carras asks questions of Wygant about his time in the MiHOPE program.“It’s not just like, ‘hey, stay out of prison and join this program,’” says Wygant. “It’s like ‘stay out of prison and change your life.’”
MiHOPE is a collaborative effort involving MiHOPE coordinator Brionna Varner, Carras, the probation department, jail administrators, the prosecutor’s office, public defenders, defense attorneys, and the sheriff’s office. The aim is to give “the most difficult, high-risk probationers” a final opportunity to turn things around.
“This is my 14th year, I think, on the bench, and [with] traditional probation, we do our best but it’s just a revolving door sometimes,” says Carras. “It might be jail, probation, jail, probation; [then they’re] just back out in the community, not getting any better.”
Carras says that the cooperation between different court service providers to make MiHOPE work is intended to drive home how important the program is in the Midland community.
Wygant shares his story from where he was at the beginning of the program, to where he’s at now, with Midland County Circuit Court Chief Judge Stephen P. Carras and others in attendance.
“[We’re] very serious about this. We work with these people because we want them to be successful,” says Carras. “It’s good for all of us. But if they victimize the community again, we don’t keep working with them.”
MiHOPE currently has 39 participants, according to Varner. Prior to Wygant’s discharge, there have been 19 successful discharges from the MiHOPE program, and 89% of those discharged have not committed a new felony since graduating.
The path to recovery is not without its challenges
“The first step is understanding you have a problem,” says Wygant. “That’s the first step, but that doesn’t go just with drugs. That goes with countless other things. The number one thing I know for sure that I’ve gotten out of [the program] is a basic level of awareness of what’s going on with me and around me, because when I’m using [drugs] it’s not like that at all.”
Andrea VanWert, Wygant’s girlfriend, shares feelings and personal experiences with him during his graduation ceremony.In 2018, Wygant was charged with possession of heroin, larceny, and driving while his license was suspended/revoked. He was sentenced to probation and admitted to the Tri-County Community Adjudication Program (TRI-CAP) in Saginaw for inpatient treatment. After one day, he left.
“I decided that TRI-CAP wasn’t for me,” says Wygant. After leaving TRI-CAP, Wygant went missing for a week. He found solace with a friend, Greg (a.k.a. Buddy) Yancer.
“I remember very vividly sitting with you in the car the day that you [were going to] turn yourself in,” says Yancer. “And I remember you getting out of the car, and I thought you just told me what I wanted to hear and you were gonna go right back out [and use drugs].”
Wygant did what he told Yancer he would do — he turned himself in to his probation officer, Lisa Budreau.
“I don’t remember the whole conversation,” says Wygant. “I do remember Lisa asked me if I wanted to try boot camp. I asked if my time would count [towards time served] and she said ‘yes,’ so I said yes.”
Wygant was sent to serve at the Special Alternative Incarceration facility, or SAI, which is a prison boot camp in Chelsea, Michigan. While there, Wygant earned his G.E.D.
Following his time at SAI, Wygant lived in Midland’s Open Door shelter for over six months.
“When I got out of boot camp, I had nothing. I didn’t even have a pair of my own boxers. ... They really took care of me. Midland’s awesome ... and they don’t expect anything back,” says Wygant. “... Things for me now, compared to two years ago, [are] great.”
Wygant, center, hugs his friend Buddy Yancer, left, while MiHOPE coordinator Brionna Varner, center-right, and probation officer Lisa Budreau, off-right, watch.
Since staying at Open Door, Wygant has found employment as a construction worker at Skills for Tomorrow Remodeling, moved into his own place, paid off all of his fines, and got his driver’s license back.
His next move? Building a home on a piece of property he purchased in Midland.
The program “works if you work it”
After being admitted to the MiHOPE program, there are strict requirements given to the client to complete.
The requirements include following all rules and directives set by the court and various service providers in the program, including attending Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholic Anonymous at least twice a week, and finding employment or doing community service.
“When our people find stable employment, that’s when they do so much better,” says Varner. “Employment where they can actually live off of that, and afford all their bills — I think that’s key for sure.”
Felony probation and the MiHOPE program may last a maximum of five years.
Carras listens as Wygant tells part of his story about his time in the MiHOPE program.
“If they can make it all the way to the end, even if they max out the five years, then we consider that successful that they haven’t been sent to prison,” says Lisa Budreau.
If a rule or order is broken or ignored by the client, the result is a sanction. Depending on which order is broken, sanctions can range from eight hours of community service to 30 days in jail.
Varner reports that felons admitted to Swift and Sure were 12% less likely to commit another felony compared to individuals in the regular felony probation program.
“For a guy like Matt, being able to get sober and establish new habits, that’s something that he’ll pass down,” says Carras. “If he has a family, [if] he has children, those children [will now] live in a much healthier household. It just goes on and on and on.”