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Emotions run high at Manatee drug court graduation

MANATEE — Erica Dearth has no hesitation in talking about her drug-addicted past which began at age 12 and escalated to smoking crack and marijuana and prescription pill abuse. She hopes it might inspire someone else in the grips of addiction to seek help.

Like most drug addicts, Dearth, 28, eventually found herself in the criminal justice system arrested on drug charges. It was the best thing that ever happened to her, she said as she graduated from Manatee Drug Court on Thursday.

She spoke to a courtroom full of men and women arrested on drug-related charges going through various stages of the same program she just completed. She spoke during a ceremony celebrating the program as part of National Drug Court Month.

“Once I stopped fighting the system and joined in my recovery, my life began to fall into place,” Dearth said. “I’m free.”

Since 1987, drug offenders in Manatee who meet certain criteria have been offered Drug Court to try to turn their lives around. The program — which does not accept anyone accused of violent crimes, sex crimes, or crimes of drug selling — takes participants on a year-long journey through intense counseling, drug testing and life skills training. And in the end, successful completion can mean expunging a criminal record.

Drug Court graduate Alexandra Buck had her arrest officially purged Thursday from the system. Buck, 22, felt the weight of her past lifted off her shoulders. She is now more concerned with her current life of work and study. She recently made the dean’s list where she attends college.

“I really feel excited that I can put this behind me and get on with my life,” she said. “It’s all about the person and whether they are ready to work hard and make that change.”

Tears also fell at the ceremony in remembrance of Tim Dunbar, a man who once struggled with drugs who graduated from Drug Court and became a mentor for others. He also inspired his brother and sister-in-law to become mentors to addicts struggling with drugs.

Dunbar passed away in February, and his family gathered at the ceremony as Drug Court officials honored him by proclaiming the ceremony in his honor. His brother, Patrick, held a framed picture of Tim, while tears streamed down his mother Forestine’s cheeks. His counselors remembered Dunbar has a powerful force who believed in helping people with their addictions.

“Everybody loved him, and he really believed in this program,” Patrick Dunbar said. “There were down times in his life, just like everyone has, but he was able to show that there are pretty good ups, too.”

Dunbar’s legacy, as well as of those who graduate, is that there is life after drug addiction, according to Drug Court Director Alfred James.

“I’m hard on you guys sometimes, but it’s only because I care,” James told the gallery of current Drug Court participants.

County Judge Charles Williams praised the graduates and offered encouragement to the new participants, but also warned the only way for the program to work is through honesty within, honesty with counselors, and honesty with the court.

“I can’t deal with dishonesty or lack of effort,” he said.

Not only did court officials and the public defender’s office take part in the ceremony, but members of the Manatee State Attorney’s Office also attended.

“First and foremost public safety is our main concern, but there are a lot of people who, if they can overcome their addiction, can be positive members of society,” said Assistant State Attorney Ed Brodsky. “There are a lot of success stories with the program.”