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Drug Court: Youths face their future instead of charges

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Sean Riley had just turned 18 when he got kicked out of Waccamaw High School. He soon after found himself facing a minimum of 10 years in jail on burglary and drug charges.

“I didn’t have much recollection of doing it,” he said. But he knew he had and it looked like the price was going to be his future. He had earned a GED and planned to join the Navy. He was supposed to ship out soon, but all that disappeared.

“I got in a lot of trouble in a very short amount of time,” Riley, now 20, explained last week. He describes a teen who was out of control. It’s hard to equate that person with the well-mannered, neatly dressed young man telling the story. This young man seems to have a bright future, a deep sense responsibility and purpose.

He owes it all to Georgetown County Drug Court, a program started just over a year ago that helps rehabilitate nonviolent criminal offenders without incarceration and the associated public cost. All those who qualify for the program either abuse or are dependent on drugs.

Riley was one of four members of the program’s first graduating class this month, and he said Drug Court is one of the best things that ever happened to him.

“It’s a complete gift. It’s been nothing but a blessing and I pray I never take it for granted,” he said.

It was a sentiment echoed by his fellow graduates during a small ceremony last week. It was the first day of spring, a day for new beginnings.

“How appropriate is that?” said Solicitor Greg Hembree.

Largely funded by a federal grant, the program has 10 active clients who must stick to strict standards to remain on the roster. They have to attend drug treatment sessions twice a week, a curfew is enforced and there are regular drug and alcohol tests.

“If there’s a drug test, we’re drug testing them with it,” said Candy DeBusk, the Drug Court director.

Additionally, there are self-help meetings they must attend and participants in the program have to pay a weekly fee, be employed full-time or perform volunteer service while they look for work. They appear before a judge once a week to give him an update about what’s going on in their lives and any setbacks or achievements the week has brought.

If any of the conditions aren’t met, the consequences include everything from essay writing to a weekend in jail.

Waldo Maring, the judge for the Georgetown County program, ordered jail time for one Drug Court client earlier this month for a curfew violation and a positive drug test. That participant appeared before him in court the following week in chains and begged to keep his place in the program.

“I’m sick of these shackles and sick of living like this,” he told Maring, breaking down.

Maring had him released from custody and gave him another chance, but warned him he was on thin ice.

DeBusk said Maring, the county’s Probate Court judge, is perfect for the job.

“He has just a wonderful ability on the bench to be compassionate as well as assertive, which is just what the clients need,” she said.

But compassion can only go so far, and not everyone who enrolls makes it through the program. There were two in the group that started out with Riley who didn’t complete the program. Still, the success rate is impressive.

Drug courts exist in over 2,500 jurisdictions and, nationally, 75 percent of people who complete Drug Court are not re-arrested, according to DeBusk. For every person who completes Drug Court, up to $13,000 is saved — a return of $27 for every $1 invested, she added.

A Drug Court in Horry County started in the summer of 2005 and has had 110 graduates. It has about 70 active clients.

“When I agreed to do this, I had questions about the success of it,” Maring said. “I’m often concerned a lot of feel-good programs don’t accomplish much, but after a year of being involved, I’ve become a whole-hearted supporter of Drug Court. It really has teeth, and to watch these four come through, to see the difference from a year ago, I’m real pleased today.”

At the Drug Court graduation ceremony, held in a courtroom at the Judicial Center following the weekly Drug Court session, graduates had a chance to talk about the program and how it changed their lives. But they also heard from friends, family and others, such as their attorneys, who watched them on their journey through the program.

“Hopefully one day I’ll be right there where you’re at. You’ve made it this far and I hope you can go the rest of the way,” said Paulo Martinez, a fellow Drug Court client.

It won’t always be easy, warned Beth Hunt, a graduate from the program in Horry County.

“The slate is clean, but it’s our choice,” she said. The graduates have to choose to continue to make healthy decisions and be around healthy people. “This is when the real decision-making starts,” she said.

Erin Bailey, an assistant solicitor recalled watching Eric Collins, one of the four graduates, during his weekly Drug Court appearances.

At one of the sessions, several months in, he stopped her in the hall and thanked her for letting him have the opportunity to be part of the program.

“That’s something I’ll never forget,” Bailey said, adding her own thanks to Collins for completing the program and proving her faith in him was well placed.

“I know what a strenuous, strict program this was,” said Richard Colvin, the public defender who represented Riley and Aaron Adams, another graduate. “These people have proven they are committed to sobriety and to changing their lives.”

Looking at them lined up in seats of honor in the courtroom during their last appearance at Drug Court, he said the graduates “look healthy and strong and happy, and I’m happy for them all.” The graduates beamed in return.

Assistant Solicitor Nancy Cote said Adams was the first person she thought of when she got word Drug Court was being introduced in Georgetown County.

“I’d read his case file and met with him and it was like two totally different people,” she said. The young man she had spoken with didn’t match up with the one she read about in reports. She wanted to find a way to help him turn his life around and, with a large, supportive family structure around him, she believed Drug Court would be the way to help him do that.”

Terry McKnight, Adams’ sponsor and friend, called Drug Court “one of the best things that Georgetown County has ever done.”

“I sponsor a lot of people in 12-step programs,” McKnight said. “A lot of people don’t understand addiction. I didn’t understand it myself. They ask how can somebody do this stuff.” He talked about how addiction can affect good people, making them do things that are out of character and how “drugs ruin people’s lives all the time, every day.”

He’s proud of the people behind Drug Court who are working to help those struggling with addiction turn their lives around, he said. “That’s the whole thing about this program: you’re putting them back in society. I’m sure everybody in here has made mistakes. Having a second chance like this is a great thing.”

In addition to completing the program, Adams, who was charged with grand larceny, has paid more than $3,000 in restitution to his victim and is active in the “self help community,” having shared his story with other potential clients of the program.

Riley similarly has used his own experiences in an effort to help others in recovery. Underwater welding school, joining the family business and perhaps trying to get accepted again to the Navy are a few of the possibilities he’s weighing for his future.

“I really can’t express how much the program means to those who have been able to take advantage of it,” said Riley’s father, James. “It’s a second opportunity.”

He talked about how the program helped his son learn to take responsibility for his actions, how proud he is of the mental and physical changes he’s witnessed in Sean since he started the program, and how glad he is to see a smile back on his son’s face.

“The smile disappeared for a long time,” James said.

But the best thing he’s seen happen in his son is the development of a selfless willingness to help others.

“That makes me believe in your recovery more than anything else,” he said.

But at the same time, Sean knows he can’t force another person’s recovery.

James spoke of a friend of Sean’s who relapsed. He asked Sean what he was going to do about it and Sean replied there was nothing he could do.

“He’s got all the tools,” Sean told his father. “There’s a hammer and there’s a nail, and if you don’t pick up the hammer, you’ll never drive the nail.”

“That, from a 20-year-old,” James said proudly.

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