By Tina Alvey
Congratulations coupled with caveats were extended Thursday to three graduates of the Southeastern Regional Drug Court program in Greenbrier County.
Receiving recognition for their successful completion of the program were Drew McGuire, Brett Sheppard and Morgan Thomas. Each spoke briefly, with McGuire summing up the sentiment expressed by all, telling the drug treatment team in attendance, “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to change my life.”
The state’s adult drug courts, which are now active in 35 of West Virginia’s 55 counties, are intensive supervision probation programs for offenders who are addicted or at risk of becoming addicted to drugs.
“It’s a self-paced program,” said Tonya Hoover, a probation officer who previously served as the Greenbrier program’s coordinator.
Offenders placed in the program spend an average of 18 months attending counseling sessions and taking approximately 22 classes designed to support them as they advance their education, work on their life skills and maintain their sobriety, Hoover said.
Participants are required to submit to drug tests multiple times each week, to perform community service work, to meet with probation officers frequently and to see the drug court judge on a weekly basis.
Among the speakers addressing a courtroom filled with the grads’ families and friends at Thursday’s midday ceremony were West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin and Senior Status Judge Frank Jolliffe, a former 11th Circuit judge who now presides over drug courts in Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties.
“It’s a pleasure to be involved in a process that has successfully changed the lives of people,” Jolliffe told a crowd numbering around 60.
Making note of the number of family members attending the graduation ceremony, the judge observed, “When you’re in drug court, an entire family is involved.”
Jolliffe warned the graduates, “You have to be committed to the change that your life requires.”
Benjamin also spoke about the ongoing process the drug court graduates still face.
“You have to find it within you to turn around your life,” he told the grads. “It’s not smooth sailing afterward. Nobody ever said it was.”
He added, “There will be bumps in the road, but you have friends here.”
Benjamin urged the graduates to continue to stay in touch with the drug court treatment team for support and reinforcement of the lessons learned in the program.
He pointed out the many ways in which drug courts are good for West Virginia, including saving taxpayers’ money, freeing up space in prisons and lowering recidivism rates.
While those are “all great reasons” to maintain and grow the system, Benjamin said he believes the impact on the offenders’ families outweighs them all.
“What I see are families (who) are restored,” he said, surveying the courtroom.
West Virginia has a choice on how it handles a burgeoning drug abuse crisis, the chief justice maintained: “We can incarcerate the problem, or we can try to treat the problem.”
He noted, “The drug courts mean a lot to me.”
In a brief interview with The Register-Herald following the graduation ceremony, Benjamin expanded upon his remarks, saying, “The drug court system has shown us the merit of having an open mind in dealing with problems that face West Virginians. We can get better results in a more cost-effective manner.”
To date, the drug court system boasts more than 700 graduates statewide, Benjamin said. While statistics indicate around 80 percent of those offenders would otherwise be expected to re-offend, only about 11 percent of the drug court grads have done so, he said.
Benjamin also praised the drug treatment team for their efforts, as well as Jolliffe and Greenbrier Circuit Judges James Rowe and Joseph Pomponio.
“Everybody works together in an environment designed to help the participants,” the chief justice said. “I really appreciate what they do.”
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