Circuit Court Judge David Walsh presided over Drug Court graduation Jan. 22, the last time he will do so before his retirement Feb. 29.
It's not often that the solemn air inside the dark wood courtrooms at the Kim C. Hammond Justice Center in Bunnell carries whoops of exultation and the scent of fresh flowers.
But it did Friday, Jan. 22, as families and friends celebrated five graduates of the county's Adult Drug Court program with tears, applause and bouquets.
Circuit Judge David Walsh congratulated the five graduates and told the audience how far they'd come.
"This is a dificult, tough program, and I want to congratulate every one of the five folks here for having done this," he said. "It’s been tough."
He handed each of the graduates a framed photograph taken of them after they were clean — to contrast with ones taken when they were arrested — and read out loud some comments the graduates had submitted about the program:
"My family members and I have become a lot closer, and they trust me." ... "Recovery has brought my mom and I closer together; my life prior to drug court was chaos, not caring about anyone or anything." ... "I now have a relationship with my family I never had, and I now have a a healthy romantic relationship that I never knew was possible."
Together, Walsh said, this group of graduates had 1,884 clean days between them. They'd completed hundreds of hours of community service at places including the Humane Society, Grace Community Food Pantry, local state parks and the courthouse itself. They're employed.
As each of the graduates came up to the podium to receive their certificate of completion, they thanked the program's staff, and their family members or friends, for supporting them.
"I really appreciate it," graduate Robert Ward said. "I’d probably be dead if I didn’t go into drug court."
"This past year has been honestly the best year of my life," graduate Kassandra Allison said, before thanking the Drug Court staff team and her family members and friends.
Saving lives — and taxpayer dollars
Of the Flagler program's graduates, Walsh said, 87% have no new drug charges within three years of graduation, in part because the program stays with them long enough to actually work: It's unusual for people to graduate in less than a year.
"I like to tell people, 'We’re not going to give up on you,'" Walsh said. "We really do make every effort to ensure that you remain, and that you benefit from the treatment."
The drug court program, which was pioneered in Miami-Dade County in 1989 and has since spread across the country, helps people who've been charged with nonviolent drug crimes get clean, diverting them from criminal justice system into the drug treatment system.
Once they graduate — after months of treatment, drug testing and volunteer work — their drug charges are dismissed or reduced, and they can return to the community without a criminal background that would make it hard for them to find work.
Drug Court is voluntary, Walsh said, and prospective clients sit through a session to get an idea of how it works. If they're accepted into the program, they enter it as a pretrial intervention or as a condition of their probation.
It doesn't work for everyone; many don't make it to graduation. But 65% who do have no new criminal charges, he said, and 90% have no new drug convictions.
And nationwide, Walsh said, citing statistics from the National Association of Drug Court Professsionals, drug courts reduce crime 49% more than other options, and save about $3000 to $13,000 per client, and $3.36 for every $1 invested in the program.
'You get to know these people'
Friday's Drug Court graduation was the last one Walsh will preside over.
Walsh — a former civil attorney and a Navy veteran who flew more than 150 combat missions in southeast Asia in the A-6 Intruder aircraft as a bombardier/navigator, according to a 7th Judicial Circuit news release — retires at the end of February. He became a judge in 2001.
For Walsh, who's known people in his own life with substance abuse or mental health issues, being in a position where he can help people with such problems and watch them succeed is gratifying.
What's hard, he said, is when a Drug Court client fails, and he has to sentence them out of the program. "That's a very tough thing for me, because you get to know these people," he said.
County and city officials attended the graduation ceremony, with County Commissioner Frank Meeker delivering its keynote speech.
Meeker told the graduates that though they'd once been tagged as losers, they'd transformed themselves into champs.
"I turned 61 this month, but I was pretty young in life when I figured out that many a loser in life just never figured out how close they were to being a winner," Meeker said. "Don't give up. Spit in the eye of failure. Shake an angry fist at setbacks."
He recounted some of the famous people who'd become successes despite early setbacks: Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Thomas Edison, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Stephen King.
"These are people who seemed to be going nowhere, and then brilliantly got somewhere," he said. "Being tagged a loser didn't necessarily mean being a failure, if you're willing to correct things and work at becoming a winner. Having graduated from this court, you guys have made a huge course change."
He told the young graduates this was their chance to start fresh.
"Most likely, I'm going to be dead in 25 years," he said. "You have your whole life ahead of you, and you can do wonderful things with it. ... I believe in you guys. Prove me right. Be the 'loser' who wins at the game of life. Be that 65% that never sees the inside of a courtroom."