East County Drug Court celebrates 20th anniversary with graduation ceremony

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A graduation is a time for congratulations for an honored accomplishment. It is a segue from a former life into a new one. Such was never truer than for the 13 recent graduates of the 45th Class of the East County Drug Court. Not only did they celebrate an achievement, they recognized a new beginning and an important turning point in their lives. And they celebrated sobriety.

A graduation is a time for congratulations for an honored accomplishment. It is a segue from a former life into a new one. Such was never truer than for the 13 recent graduates of the 45th Class of the East County Drug Court. Not only did they celebrate an achievement, they recognized a new beginning and an important turning point in their lives. And they celebrated sobriety.

On Aug. 9, the latest East County class was recognized for successfully completing an 18-month program of intensive and comprehensive drug treatment. Their path had included close supervision, full accountability, and regular drug testing. And while each person has every right to be proud, it is not something they were able to do alone, evident in the over 120 friends, family, and supporters who attended the ceremony. The audience enthusiastically cheered and applauded as each grad was announced. 

Drug Court is a nationwide program designed to treat offenders instead of just locking them up. “Drug Courts demonstrate that a combination of accountability and treatment can transform the lives of seriously addicted offenders,” said Chris Deutsch of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. “By treating our chronically addicted offenders in Drug Court, we can save vast amounts of money, protect public safety, reunite families and significantly reduce crime and drug abuse in the community.”

San Diego County’s program has so far demonstrated a 71 percent success rate from its graduates.

Established in August 1997, the East County Drug Court is “judicially-supervised.” The court-referred offenders remain in long term treatment under close supervision. They must meet stated obligations to themselves, their families, and even their communities. Both regular and random drug testing is part of the program. They frequently appear in front of the judge for a review of their progress. Compliance is rewarded; sanctions are leveled for not living up to their obligations. The strategy has been an effective one.

Offenders have much in common. It’s not simply the addiction or the criminal activity that hounds them, it is the loss of close friends and – especially – family. It is a feeling of hopelessness. It is interesting to note how this graduation class represented all ages, from one man in his early twenties to another man well over fifty. It is an indication that addiction knows no boundaries; it strikes all ages, sexes, and ethnicities. Addiction is an equal opportunity menace. Sobriety is the focus and the answer. The Drug Court program teaches people how to achieve and maintain this goal.

The program often results in reunification with the sons and daughters who have often been removed from their care and custody, or with estranged mothers and fathers and siblings. Many graduates find God in the process and have committed to His teachings.

The graduation ceremony is an important part of the healing process. It serves as recognition as well as closure, marking an achievement of which these graduates can be proud. Many smiles and handshakes filled the Lakeside Community Center, with much back-slapping and hugging amongst the crowd. Finally, someone said “Showtime” and the event commenced.

It took “a lot of hard work to get to this point,” said Roxy Walnum, program manager for the East County Center for Change, of the graduates. It was now time to give the credit, which was certainly due.

Part of the graduation process requires that each individual make a short speech – getting up in front of a crowd and addressing your family and friends and supporters. It is uncomfortable for many, but the speech puts an exclamation point on their success. It is a very powerful moment for all the graduates, often a moment of stunning realization of what they have attained and how they can go forward in life.

As the individual graduate was announced, a booking photo was projected, followed by a more recent picture. The stark differences in the photographs told the story: the people entering the program were scowling and unkempt; the graduates were all smiles and neatness. The stories each shared were just as telling.

Chris A. spoke of how he was able to open his eyes to a new way of life. David M. said he arrived at the program both clean and sober, and out-of-custody – a rare occurrence. But he needed to learn how to open up and let people in. David was homeless, unemployable, and living in a car when he came to the program. He proudly graduated with the skills to change all that.

When Jessica P. walked onto the stage, she was struck with a little stage fright – not uncommon for anyone who has not had much experience with public speaking. As she fought back tears, her three-year-old son jumped up from the audience and ran up to her. He hugged his mother and suddenly, in that moment and without a word, the singular purpose of the evening became crystal clear to all.

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