MANATEE -- For many convicted drug offenders, drug court may seem like a challenge, but it has been a life-changing opportunity for this year's graduates.
The six graduates in the 2013 class of the DUI/Drug Court programs in Manatee and Sarasota counties were honored Thursday morning at the Manatee County Judicial Center.
A former graduate of the program was the guest speaker.
"If it wasn't for the program I wouldn't be here today," Stephen Camp said.
Camp has been clean for more than three years. Life changed for him, too, after entering the drug court program in 2008.
After a rough start, he was sent to the Manatee program.
"All of Drug Court was standing up for me, which was weird because I didn't really know anyone from Manatee County," Camp said.
The program helped him beat his bad habits and find
a job. And it helped him find God.
"They actually made me go to church -- which was a good thing, I had always said I wanted to go," Camp said. "I learned a lot; God is a forgiving God."
Since the Drug Court program's creation in 1997 for Sarasota and Manatee, more than 15,000 people have graduated. The DUI court began in 2008 in Sarasota.
The first drug court began in Miami more than two decades ago to deal with the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s.
Today there are more than 3,800 similar programs in the U.S., and May is National Drug Court month.
"Drug court is a collaborative effort by the community to help the community," Manatee County Drug Court Director Alfred James said.
While in the program, participants work on changing daily behaviors.
"If they don't change, they will continue to do the same things they always did, then they have the same outcome," James said.
Participants are told to change who they hang out with, where they go and what they do.
"For some of them, they have never had any counseling," Sarasota Drug Court Director Ericka Randall said. "They are pretty much victims of their habits."
Clients, as they are called, enter a minimum one-year program that requires random drug testing, individual counseling, group counseling, outside meetings and whatever else is deemed necessary to get their life back on track.
"Some of them don't have a family support system," Randall said.
During the ceremony Thursday, a video presentation offered some words of encouragement from former graduates of the program.
"I don't know who is listening to this, but remember: People, places and things, always remember that," Mary Wheeler.
The 2013 Drug Court graduates are Thomas Maldonado, Victor Manriquez, Sara Empey, Kellie Stephens and Jamie Mcelfresh. The DUI court graduates were Mark Geoghegan and Douglas Wallace.
Manatee County Chief Judge Andy Owens Jr. had a few words for all those in attendance.
"We don't have bad people in the programs, we have people that made bad choices," Owens said. "I think everybody in life has 30 seconds of stupidity and generally it revolves around people, places and things."
Jessica De Leon, law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.