By Stephen Smoot
“It’s not fun and games to get there or go through it,” said Circuit Court Judge H. Charles Carl as he opened his judicial circuit’s drug court commencement. Last week, the assembled group honored eight graduates.
The late Judge John Yoder of Jefferson County, an early advocate of the program, said in a 2015 speech at a drug court graduation, that “it’s easier to go through simple probation, but this program gives you the tools to stay drug free. He added some key advice in “don’t associate with those who got you in trouble or encouraged that behavior.”
Carl opened with strong praise for April Mallow, prosecuting attorney of Pendleton County, as well as her colleagues in Hampshire and Hardy counties. Carl explained that “they take time out of their schedules” and that they are “an integral part of our success.”
Also, according to Carl, “drug courts with participation from prosecuting attorneys have a 90 percent higher success rate.”
Mallow explained how prosecutors assist the drug court, saying that she is engaged in “helping to assess individuals within our Court System who may be eligible and will also benefit from the program.”
Carl also expressed appreciation for Roger Dahmer, Pendleton County Commissioner, who he said “drove down from Franklin to be with us.” In addition to David Cannon, commissioner from Hampshire County, he said, “Thank you gentlemen, very much.”
Additionally, each of the eight graduates received a personalized certificate from US Senator Joe Manchin, with the message “we’re extremely proud of you.”
At the end of his talk, Carl stated that graduation represents a beginning, adding, “We just gave you the tools to make ‘good choices.’ You now can decide what life is going to look like.”
The next speaker, Derek Stewart, said that “from a young age, I hated being alive,” but that “graduation day (from drug court) is still my proudest accomplishment.”
Mallow explained that drug court “helps them to learn how to become productive members of society” through both building the participant up and also strictly holding them accountable. “I have seen successful participants go into drug court as a shell of the person they used to be, or should be, and come out with the tools to succeed in overcoming addiction and a sense of self-worth,” she said.
Two graduates courageously stood before the packed room, opened themselves up, and told stories about the worst periods of their lives – and how drug court helped them to escape.
George Johnson of Hardy County identified himself at the start as “a son, a brother, a father, a grandfather, and an addict.” He explained his descent into drug abuse by saying “I never thought I was hurting anyone but myself.”
Johnson’s story is typical. It is no steady rise to completion and success, but a tale of achievements and setbacks. At one point, while participating in the South Branch Day Report Center program, he got clean, but “within three months I was back on meth.”
Drug court and the Pathways treatment center helped Johnson rebuild himself. “For once in my life, I saw myself as more than an addict,” he shared.
“Being in the throes of addiction,” Mallow explained, “takes away a person’s sense of purpose, but if they work this program, they have the opportunity to get it back.”
Shannon Crowley of Hampshire County told attendees that “I didn’t care about anything but men, drugs, and alcohol. I didn’t even care for my child.” Crowley’s experience showed the damage that toxic relationships can do to an addict dealing with a number of life issues.
She said, “I thought I met the man of my dreams. He introduced me to heroin, which became the love of my life.” Drug court taught Crowley that “‘no’ is a complete sentence” and that “a bad day sober is better than any day in addiction.”
Crowley now works to help other addicts to navigate the process as a certified recovery coach and is studying to be a peer support specialist. Mallow stated that “successful individuals come out of the program employed or employable, with a place to live and the ability to succeed in life.”
After a slideshow documenting their journey toward a new life, one of the best, if unscripted, moments of the day occurred. As Joshua Dingess of Hardy County was introduced and strode forward to get his certificate, the whole room could hear a small child scream “way to go Josh!”
Carl explained after each graduate received their honors that “this is a unique program.” It requires participants to both work on their sobriety and legal obligations, but also “they go through life. They work, they work through relationships, handling their day-to-day problems.”
Dahmer said of the drug court program “I think it’s great that people have a choice to go through this program. They get a chance at a normal life instead of spending their lives in jail.”