Nineteen people graduated from the San Luis Obispo Adult Felony Drug Court on Friday night, completing a rigorous 18-month program to beat drug addiction and avoid a lengthy jail sentence — or worse.
Each told their stories in front of some 350 family members, friends and strangers Friday at the San Luis Obispo Veterans Hall before receiving their certificate and moving on with their lives without their past addiction or criminal conviction hanging over them.
Jacob Johnson’s past dependence on opiates ended in a 2011 conviction for felony burglary and receiving stolen property. Johnson, 29, said he resisted treatment as long as he could before finding accountability with his peers in the program and finally embracing sobriety.
“Addiction wants to push the addict away from everybody who loves them,” Johnson said prior to the ceremony. “But I’m living clean because other people have shown me that it can be done.”
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The ceremony was emceed by program coordinator Clark Guest, attended by Superior Court Judge Michael Duffy and SLO County Supervisor Debbie Arnold and featured standup comedian and recovering addict Mark Lundholm as guest speaker.
Graduates walked one by one down the aisle through a standing-room only crowd. They were greeted on stage by a projection of their original jail booking photo, where their transformations were acknowledged by a roar of applause from the audience.
Since the first program was established in Florida in 1987, drug courts have become among the country’s most successful criminal justice programs. There are now more than 2,800 similar federally funded programs nationwide, with more than 142,000 people successfully making their way through them.
Participation in the program keeps low-level, nonviolent drug offenders out of overpopulated jails, said program coordinator Guest, but it also gives them a shot at recovery, learning re-socializing skills and job training along the way.
Approximately 75 percent of people who complete the program are not re-arrested within two years of graduation, according to data from the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, and drug courts save an estimated $27 for every dollar invested, or up to $13,000 per client.
The program is broken into four three-month phases and six months of aftercare. Participants make regular court appearances before a judge, submit to regular drug testing, attend at least three weekly counseling sessions, attend self-help meetings and maintain employment. If they use drugs or miss a class, they go straight to jail.
“Drug Court is very successful and that’s not by chance — this is a tough program,” Guest said.
Johnson echoed that endorsement. “The knowledge that we get about this disease is second-to-none. On a scientific level, they get us to understand what is going on physiologically and then how to implement what you learn to make the change.”
Daniell Tish ended up in the program after a 2010 theft conviction, capping more than a decade of opiate abuse. With her graduation, she has been reunited with her three daughters, who had previously gone to live with relatives.
“I’ve seen addiction. But this is the other side of addiction — this is recovery,” Tish said. “I learned tools here that I’m going to carry with me for the rest of my life.”