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Drug Court celebrates 15 years of helping addicts
Program helps offenders with counseling, other treatments
Judge John Girardeau prepares to speak Friday afternoon at First Baptist Church to remark on the 15th anniversary of Hall County Drug Court. In 2000, with the help of colleagues and the district attorney's office, Girardeau established Hall County's Drug Court.

Two versions of Joel Perez joined Superior Court Judge Jason Deal at his lectern Friday before the First Baptist Church masses.

The first was a two-dimensional version of the man, the printout of a Hall County Jail mugshot.

The second was Perez in the flesh — a man Deal considers to be one of the most talented artists he’s ever met — wearing a cross around his neck and smiling back to his fellow Drug Court graduates.

“Doesn’t he look a lot happier today?” Deal asked to rows of applause and laughter.

Perez and others were honored Friday for graduating from Drug Court as the treatment court celebrates its 15th anniversary. Dawson County Treatment Court also graduated several participants at its 10th anniversary.

The treatment court combines monthly court sessions, group counseling sessions and substance abuse treatment. The program is broken down into five phases that take a minimum of 24 months.

In 2001, Judge John Girardeau said drug cases dominated his criminal calendar.

“After a while, I came to learn that even the cases that weren’t drug cases — property crimes such as shoplifting, burglary, theft and even some violent offenses — often had addiction to drugs as a major cause,” the judge said.

Some would be sent to prison, and others would spend time on probation. The same people would end up back before Girardeau.

“Neither prison nor probation was working,” he said.

With his mother being a middle school teacher, Deal would eventually see several of her students appear in his courtroom.

“Those were a lot of our discussions when we’d get together for dinner, was who was in Drug Court that she taught in school,” he said of his talks with Gov. Nathan Deal and First Lady Sandra Deal.

The court has grown significantly in its 15-year run, posting statistics of 135 participants and 609 graduates.

“It’s all because the state has seen fit and the county has seen fit to put money towards helping our operations,” Jason Deal said.

Nathan Deal thanked Girardeau in his speech “for having the wisdom, the insight, the courage and the determination that it took to get this program started.”

With criminal justice reform as a key issue, the governor said the work has now moved to providing educational opportunities to those in the state prison system.

“In today’s marketplace, they are going to have the doors closed before they ever get a chance to knock on them,” Deal said of the high rate of inmates without an equivalent high school education.

Jason Deal said Perez spent 582 hours performing community service.

“Everytime he got knocked down, he got himself back up,” the judge said.

Telling his story to the group gathered at the church, Perez said he learned a lot in the two-year process “through trial and error.” A handful of guests followed his speech with well wishes and congratulations for his accomplishment.

“I never gave up because I always saw a light at the end of the tunnel, and I didn’t want to go to prison no matter what,” he said.