The Douglas County Courthouse is often a place of conflict and drama as convictions are entered, sentences imposed, and the bitterness of divorce unfolds. However, the Douglas Felony Drug Court graduated its first ever class of participants on Thursday night and instead of sadness there was two hours of hope, celebration, laughter, and standing ovations.
The fourth floor jury area was transformed from a waiting room into brightly decorated black and gold tables lit by candles where Atlanta’s Finest Catering served almost 150 attendees a banquet meal and beverages. Piano music echoed through the halls of the courthouse as drug court participants, family members, and elected officials shared conversation and the evening meal.
In the past two decades, drug courts have emerged nationwide as an alternative to incarceration for persons whose crimes are motivated by substance abuse. Prosecutors, defense lawyers, corrections officials, and legislators began to notice that the same people were being sent to prison over and over again for the same reason—untreated drug and alcohol abuse. Drug courts offer an offender the ultimate carrot and stick—go to prison, or participate in a rigorous 18 month program that includes daily treatment, drug testing, community service, and surveillance by law enforcement officers in exchange for dismissal of your charges. Statistically, 75 percent of drug court participants do not re-offend within two years of graduation; on the other hand, nearly the same percentage do re-offend and are sent back to prison without treatment.
In his opening remarks Douglas Felony Drug Court Coordinator Tim Prewett told the attendees “Tonight is about 9,763 days of jail that didn’t happen. Its about 6,784 days of sobriety without failing a single drug test. And its about how the strong and positive relationships within our treatment team and with our participants can result in the transformation of human beings.”
The director of counseling for both the Felony and Misdemeanor Accountability Courts in Douglas County is Josh Nation of Ascension Counseling. Nation explained the “treatment culture” in the local drug court by emphasizing two main points: “Its about the importance of honesty. Telling yourself the truth about you, and telling us the truth about you. You can’t help yourself, and we can’t help you unless truth is at the center of everything we do. We also teach our participants to be smart, not strong. You can’t out-muscle addiction but you can out think it.”
The event keynote speaker — who was arranged by the office of Gov. Nathan Deal at the request of Judge William "Beau" McClain — Commissioner Michael Nail of the Department of Community Supervision.
Nail was briefly assigned to Douglas County years ago as a probation officer and drew laughter from the crowd as he shared his reaction when hearing that Douglas County had initiated a Felony Drug Court.
“Douglas County is going to do what,” he said. “I have to be honest, I was afraid to cross the river when I was a probation officer. Douglas County is a very tough place to commit a crime.”
However, Nail pointed out that led by Deal, “we have all come to learn the wisdom of criminal justice reform. I was at an event recently where the governor told a group of ministers that they all needed to attend a drug court graduation if they wanted to see transformation, restoration, and redemption to help them preach about it in church.”
Nail continued to speak about “not giving people a second chance, just give chances. We can’t give up on people. The only difference between a sinner and a saint is a sinner has a future and a saint has a past.”
After Nail concluded his remarks, Prewett called each graduate forward to receive a certificate, award, and personal gift from McClain.
Two of the graduates received a fishing rod and reel, and as the judge handed Chase F. his gift, he asked, “do you know what this is?” Chase responded, “my life,” and the judge said, “Chase, you now have your life back.”
At that point many in the crowd started crying and cheering. Another graduate broke down into tears about losing custody of her children due to drug use but regaining relationship with them through the drug court.
McClain said, “That’s the first thing you told me almost two years ago when you entered this program. You were doing this to get your children back.” He then smiled and handed her a gift certificate and said, “Now you can take your kids to Chuck E. Cheese.”
As the evening concluded, McClain announced that as the founder of the first felony drug court in Douglas County he had decided on a yearly basis to recognize someone in the community “who is owed far more than we can ever repay” in helping those who struggle with mental and emotional illness or addiction issues and called Dr. Dennis Herendeen forward.
“Dr. Herendeen has served our community and state for 43 years as a psychologist, counselor, therapist, and was the founding clinical director of our program. I would like to present Dr. Herendeen with at our first felony drug court graduation with the inaugural Founder’s Award, which is inscribed with this Psalm:
“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”
In conclusion, McClain briefly addressed the program participants, staff, elected officials, and family members:
“Finally, I would like take a moment to give each of you some investment advice. When you are a judge, many people seek your opinion about what they should do, and sometimes you have to tell them what to do.
The Bible says, "Consider others as more important than yourselves" (Philippians 2:3).
“Invest in people, not things. That is what we do in our drug court. We invest in people, who don’t have anyone left who is willing to invest in them. Tonight I hope you have seen the wisdom of our investment. Tonight it is my great honor to present to you each of our graduates, who were lost, but now are found, who were blind, but now see, who have received grace, and we hope will long live to return the grace they have received a hundred times over. Good night and God bless you.”