Local News

September 15, 2013

Drug court graduates credit program with saving lives

Two-and-a-half years ago, Mary Jane Garner was standing before Superior Court Judge Jack Partain, unkempt, distraught, lacking confidence in herself and caught in a pattern of drug abuse she couldn’t seem to find her way out of.

Last week, she stood with the judge at the Whitfield County Courthouse — professionally dressed, put-together and smiling as dozens of supporters gathered to recognize her achievements.

“She has come light years in this program,” Partain said.

The program is the Conasauga Drug Court, and Garner was among five individuals who graduated from it last week. The roughly two-year program is an alternative to prison for many people who have committed drug-related felonies and want a chance at fighting their substance addiction and making changes to ensure they don’t revert to their old lifestyles.

There are five phases in the program, beginning with participants being under tight supervision and going to class five days a week and ending with a transition to a normal adult life in which they’re expected to have jobs, provide for themselves and any dependent family members and give back to the community. Drug court participants have to abide by certain accountability rules — including showing up to class and completing related requirements — or face sanctions up to going to prison for their original offenses.

Not everyone finishes. Of the 178 who have finished since the Conasauga Drug Court started in 2002, only about 8 percent go back to re-offending after a year, said program coordinator Michelle Pirkle.

Pirkle said the physical damage done to a drug-user’s body don’t go away overnight. Many users, she said, need a year of sobriety before their brains are healed well enough that they can think clearly enough to want to change their lives. The strict accountability and mentor program, in which someone in a more advanced phase of drug court helps a newbie, helped many would-be graduates make it to the last phase, said Pirkle and several graduates. One graduate said he was only trying to get out of going to jail when he agreed to enter drug court, but he now realizes how much the move has helped him change his life.

Partain recognized the graduates in the Juror Assembly Room at the courthouse as dozens of family members, friends, supporters, law enforcement officers and others who work in the justice system gathered to congratulate them. The graduates were identified in a published program only by their first names. Some of them asked to remain anonymous because of concern for how publicity would affect them as they rebuild their lives. Others agreed to provide their full names to more fully share their success stories.

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