It’s graduation season, a time many associate with young people brimming with promise about to enter the wider world, with all its potential not just for success but for failure and setback.
The three dozen people who donned cap and gown yesterday at the Essex County Superior Court complex pretty much know all about that.
The graduates of the Essex County Drug Court system -- some of them grey-haired grandparents -- include men and women who have done multiple stints in jail, who have lost custody of children, who have strained relationships with family and friends to the breaking point. The ceremony yesterday celebrated their new lives as productive, drug-free citizens.
“I was trying to commit suicide and I didn’t even know it,” said one man who, a few years ago, leapt from an Irvington rooftop while he and his wife were trying to evade police.
“I prayed to God to help me and my wife. It was only later I realized this [drug court] was the help.”
“I wanted more. I got two kids. My kids got hurt because of my B.S.,” said Sharon C., another graduate, who proudly proclaimed that she “had not had a drink or a drug” for “five years, two months and three days.”
Like many of the graduates, Sharon’s emotional testimonial was greeted with cheers and warm expressions of support during a ceremony that had the intimate feel of a family gathering.
Essex County’s drug court, the first of its kind in New Jersey, was founded in 1997 and was modeled on a court program first tried in Florida eight years earlier. The program, intended to be an alternative to incarceration, identifies nonviolent offenders with substance-abuse problems facing jail time, said Janine Beer, an assistant public defender with the court.
Those offenders are given the choice of entering the drug court system, under which the offender is placed on probation for up to five years. During that time, the clients have to seek treatment -- either at an outpatient or residential facility, depending on the severity of the problem -- and then must submit to weekly drug tests. Participants are also required to either attend school or obtain full-time employment and must stick to a curfew.
Probation officers monitor clients’ progress and issue “sanctions” when a client breaks the rules, although the officers also provide emotional and other forms of help. Many of the graduates yesterday gave heartfelt “shout-outs” to individual probation officers thanking them for their service.
About 500 people are currently in the Essex drug court system.
“The drug court provides an opportunity for them to totally change their lives,” Beer said. “They’re actually becoming productive citizens instead of being in and out of jail.”
Judge Patricia Costello, another speaker yesterday, cited statistics highlighting the effectiveness of the drug court system. Eighty-four percent of graduates had jobs, versus just 25 percent of those who first enter the program. One hundred twenty-six parents have regained custody of their children. Just 16 percent of graduates have been arrested again, versus a recidivism rate of more than 50 percent of those who never entered drug court.
Along with the judges, probation officers and other staff wishing the graduates well yesterday was a special guest: actor Michael K. Williams, known to many for playing “Omar,” the charming stickup man, on the HBO series The Wire.
Followers of the show may recall that Omar, although deeply enmeshed in the Baltimore drug-dealing scene, never used himself. In real life, however, Williams, now 46, struggled with narcotics for decades -- and even as his acting career took off.
“At the end of Season 2 I was back in the projects in Brooklyn, on the mattress on the floor, getting hella high,” Williams said. “These scars on my face, I didn’t get them on no paper route.”
“I was lying to myself, living a double life. You know what I’m saying,” he added. “I was at my lowest point personally, spiritually.”
Redemption came for Williams June 6, 2010, when he realized he needed help.
“I always wanted to know what it was like to be Tony Montana,” Williams said. “I got my wish two years ago, and I almost died. That was the second time I almost died -- the first time was in front of my mother. My heart stopped.”
He checked into a Pennsylvania rehabilitation facility that day. He credited the facility -- as well as the clergy at Christian Love Baptist Church in Irvington, where he is a parishioner -- for saving his life.
“I made a deal with God. All I can do is stay clean and He’ll do the rest. The God I serve is not stingy with those deals.”
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