URBANA – While Jamar Smith wouldn't necessarily want to repeat the last 20 months of his life, he said he feels fortunate that things happened the way they did.
"I'm thankful this happened because it saved my life. I feel fortunate I'm living. I got pretty deep into my addiction," said the 21-year-old former University of Illinois basketball player.
Smith made his comments outside a courtroom Wednesday morning after admitting to a Champaign County judge that he had violated the probation he received in May 2007 for aggravated driving under the influence by drinking again.
Smith's brush with the legal system started Feb. 12, 2007, when he drove his car into a tree on South First Street in Champaign while his blood alcohol level was 0.176. The crash seriously injured his friend and teammate Brian Carlwell.
Smith pleaded guilty in May 2007 to aggravated DUI and was sentenced to two weeks in jail and two years of probation, public service, substance abuse treatment and was ordered not to drink alcohol.
On Wednesday, he admitted he drank alcohol on July 25 of this year.
State's Attorney Julia Rietz said Champaign police were called to a bar in the 300 block of East Green Street, where a crowd had gathered outside. Rietz said officers recognized Smith and knew he was on probation. Despite officers telling him to stay back, he continued to interact with them, Rietz said. They could smell alcohol on his breath.
Rietz said Smith refused to take a portable breathalyzer test but admitted he had consumed alcohol.
"He said he drank before going out. 'I know I'm not supposed to, but it's no big deal,'" the prosecutor said, recounting what Smith told police.
Under the terms of the new sentence worked out between Rietz and Champaign attorney Mark Lipton, Smith will serve 18 months of probation from Wednesday, wear an ankle bracelet that monitors if he's consumed any alcohol, continue to participate in treatment for his alcoholism, work and not drink.
He was also sentenced to 180 days in jail, but they agreed he won't have to serve any time behind bars if he lives up to the conditions of his probation. Klaus set a Dec. 22 hearing to review Smith's progress on probation.
Smith, who was booted off the basketball team within days of his arrest, made a statement to the judge before Klaus approved the sentence. Klaus warned Smith there would be no other options besides jail or prison should he falter again.
"First and foremost, I am an alcoholic. I'm not saying it for show," Smith said.
"I realize I was sick. By no means am I saying I'm cured," he said, adding that he has a sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous lined up in Evansville, Ind. Smith said he plans to begin college at Southern Indiana University in Evansville in December, where he intends to play basketball for coach Rick Herdes.
Lipton said Smith will be moving there right away to begin a full-time job at a Schnuck's grocery store and continue out-patient therapy for his alcoholism at Amethyst House in Evansville.
That is intended to build on the in-patient treatment he had at Proctor Hospital in his hometown of Peoria this summer. Lipton said Smith entered the addictions program the Monday after he was released from the Champaign County jail in July and was there until Labor Day.
"It wasn't just my advice," Lipton said. "Treatment was in the works before this happened. There were indications and problems. The (UI basketball) coaches had made arrangements once summer school was out to put him in residential treatment," Lipton said.
Since his release from Proctor, Lipton said, his client has been going to AA meetings and just staying close to his grandparents at home. They accompanied him to court Wednesday.
Smith was the picture of self-confidence Wednesday as he told reporters of the continued support he's had from his UI coaches, former teammates, family, friends and fans. His statements were in sharp contrast to the man who ducked microphones, cameras and questions back in February 2007.
Smith told reporters that a friend he made in residential treatment died this week, a fact that worries him far more than the prospect of jail.
"Now I understand how serious it is. My biggest thing is to get everything under control," he said. "I'm trying to make sure I can make some good out of this."
Smith said he and Carlwell, the victim of his drunken driving, remain close. He said Carlwell tried to persuade him to go to San Diego State University with him, but Smith felt that was too far from home. He said getting out of Champaign-Urbana was an important part of his recovery.
"Old friends can take you back to old habits. I want to focus on getting better," he said. "I want a fresh start in a new state. I'm a new person with a new state of mind."
Details of the alcohol-monitoring ankle bracelet
What: SCRAM – Secure Constant Remote Alcohol Monitoring – system; more than 70,000 ankle bracelets used nationwide; currently 7,800 being monitored, including more than 300 in Illinois.
Who: Made by Alcohol Monitoring Systems of Littleton, Colo.; with satellite data monitored in Chicago.
How it works: The monitor on the bracelet samples perspiration every 30 minutes, then uses a wireless radio frequency signal and phone modem to transmit data, including tamper alerts, from the bracelet; the company downloads the data to an Internet site, where the information is stored and analyzed and can be accessed around the clock; the system flags and graphically shows incidents of drinking alcohol and tampering or removal attempts. Support staff analyze and interpret the data and report violations to the local service provider or court.
Source: Alcohol Monitoring Systems