September 15, 2013

Drug court graduates credit program with saving lives

Rachel Brown

— 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.

Cody Hayes

Two years ago, Cody Hayes was homeless and jobless with no car, no money, and no hope, he said. Yet last week, he stood a drug court graduate with newborn daughter Kennedy and fiancee Katie Cantrell.

Hayes began the program in November 2011 and went through with no sanctions.

“You’re to be commended for that,” Partain said.

He said Hayes has maintained a good job, gotten his driver’s license back, bought a truck, owns his house and has rebuilt many of the good relationships that were damaged while he was on drugs.

“He’s turned into a reliable, responsible and hard-working person,” Partain said.

Hayes said in a letter Partain read before his supporters that drug court saved his life. Before he entered, “drugs and material possessions were the only things that motivated me,” Hayes wrote. “I knew I had to change, but I did not know how.”

Hayes said he now has a great relationship with God and a great support group to help him with his decision to stay on the right track. He thanked several people, including Cantrell.

“She was with me during my addiction, and she stuck with me through it,” he said. “She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, and she’s been there every day since.”

Mary Jane Garner

When Garner was brought to court, she not only had a drug problem, she had a literacy problem. With help from the drug court staff and a determination to succeed, Garner has since learned to read and is working toward her General Equivalency Diploma.

She has a job and a car and has made amends with people she’s hurt in the past, Partain said. “She made her father proud of her before he passed away,” he added.

Garner had 869 drug-free days to her credit when she graduated from drug court. In a letter Garner wrote to the court, she said the program helped her learn how to build her self-esteem and be proud of herself. More than that, it gave her a new life.

“If I had not been given this opportunity, I would be dead from my addiction,” she said. Garner turned toward a sheriff’s deputy in the room and thanked him for arresting her. It was the arrest that eventually led to her turning her life around, she said. Now, instead of always needing a mentor herself, Garner is able to be a mentor, too, Partain said. He finished reading the letter.

“I am no longer a scared little girl,” Garner wrote. “I am one brave woman.”

Local attorney Anna Johnson said Garner is an example of why she does what she does. Some people, she said, don’t understand how attorneys can represent “those people” who are accused of crimes that hurt others.

“Well, ‘those people’ are these people,” Johnson said, “these beautiful people.”