Editors note: To protect their anonymity, only first names have been used for some of the people in this story.
Proud parents looked on and flashbulbs went off at the Georgia Mountain Center last week as Keith shook hands with a line of people and accepted a certificate inscribed with his name.
The scene was much like dozens of other graduation ceremonies held across Northeast Georgia during commencement week, except Judge Jason Deal was the only one wearing a robe, and Keith was handed a court document dismissing his felony cocaine charge instead of a diploma.
Keith, 51, never attended his high school graduation back in Mississippi.
“To me, back then, because of drugs and alcohol, it was not that important,” he said. “This is a ceremony for life, for something worth living for.”
Last week, three of Hall County’s four treatment and accountability courts held spring commencement ceremonies, from the small and crowded courtroom of Family Treatment Court Judge Cliff Jolliff to more than a hundred audience members gathered in a banquet room for Deal’s felony drug court graduation. Judge Charlie Wynne congratulated 24 DUI court participants for successfully completing their intensive treatment program.
DUI court graduate Orren Bell, 49, graduated twice before, from high school and from college.
“They’re all milestones you walk in life, but I probably consider this, in my case, more important than the other graduations,” said Bell, who has been arrested and charged with DUI seven times. “It marks a real turning point and a life-changing event for me.”
Bell spent time in a residential treatment facility after grudgingly reporting to the mandatory court, which requires regular appearances before the judge, 12-step group participation and alcohol screens. Unlike drug court, DUI court is part of the sentence after a conviction and does not end with a dismissal of charges.
“When you first come into the program you’re resentful and you want no part of it,” Bell said. “But as time goes by and you lose some of that hard-headedness, you find that these people, from the judge to the defense lawyer to the prosecutor, only want the best for you.”
Family Treatment Court graduate and longtime drug user Caroline lost custody of her son to her parents after sinking into a dependence on crack cocaine. She entered Jolliff’s court in March 2007 with a goal toward sobriety and reunification with her family.
Once, when she couldn’t live up to the court’s strict requirements, she went to jail for seven days.
“I’m glad that I struggled,” Caroline told her graduation audience. “Now I have a new life, and I’m able to give my children a chance in life.”
Later, Caroline, 38, reflected on how her court graduation compared to her high school graduation.
“This one was a lot more emotional,” she said. “I worked and suffered harder to get to this milestone than I ever did in high school. For me, graduation from high school meant ‘party time.’ When I leave here, I’m not going to party.”
Watching from the audience as 24-year-old Candy Hicks graduated from Family Treatment Court, Court Appointed Special Advocate Linda Taylor dabbed at tears and smiled. Taylor advocated for Hicks’ three children in juvenile court and played a big role in Hicks’ recovery as she fought a two-year battle with methamphetamine addiction.
A year ago, Taylor watched her own 18-year-old son walk across a stage and accept his high school diploma.
“I was equally proud,” for both, she said.
“For Candy, it’s different,” Taylor said. “It’s a new beginning for her. This gives her a whole new lease on life.”
Court officials say treatment courts work, cutting down recidivism rates and saving taxpayers money. Since 2003, more than 350 people have graduated from Hall County DUI Court. Nearly 300 have graduated from felony drug court, with graduates re-offending at a rate of less than 5 percent. Officials estimate that Hall County drug court has saved taxpayers close to $300,000 as an alternative to jailing offenders.
Since October 2006, Jolliff’s family treatment court has allowed 30 parents to regain custody of their children after cleaning up their lives. Judge Kathlene Gosselin’s HELP court is giving dozens of criminal defendants the chance to get court-supervised treatment for their mental health problems.
In Dawson County, Deal oversees a hybrid drug and DUI court where five people graduated last week.
“With a program like this, you have to start out with a desire to get clean,” Bell said of Hall County DUI Court. “But it gave me the discipline and the accountability to try to take the last step.”
Said Caroline in her graduation speech, “My journey’s not over — this isn’t it for me. Recovery is a lifelong journey. I just look forward to the rest of it.”
Deal said the commencement ceremonies are always emotional.
“You’re excited to see how people have turned their lives around,” the judge said. “They leave proud of their achievements, and full of hope.”