Participants graduate Drug, DUI court

MANATEE -- Ten people, sober for 90 to 120 days, celebrated graduating the 12th Judicial Circuit Drug and DUI courts Thursday morning at the Manatee County Judicial Center.

Family, friends, judges and counselors attended the ceremony, also celebrating the 15th anniversary of Drug Court's establishment in the circuit.

A total of seven Drug Court participants and three DUI Court participants, from Manatee and Sarasota counties, graduated.

Rep. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg) was the guest speaker. He discussed his own struggles on the path from substance abuse to sobriety.

Alfred James, Drug Court manager in Manatee County, and Erika Randall, Drug and DUI Court manager in Sarasota County, said requirements are based on individual cases.

Participants volunteer for the program, which is an alternative to jail time, and must have been convicted of nonviolent, substance abuse-related crimes, James said.

"The client could go to jail and do their time, but when they come out they'll do the same things," Randall said. "We get to the very core of the decisions they've made to get to the position they're in."

Participants are required to take part in one-on-one counseling sessions each week, participate in regularly scheduled group counseling sessions, attend required court dates, join outside support groups and submit to random urinalysis tests.

Some also complete community service projects, Randall said.

"We try to get them to give back whenever possible," she said. "The goal is to keep them busy, to keep them motivated and moving toward their goal."

Drug Court participants are required to pay $15 in weekly fees, which can be waived with community service.

DUI Court participants pay $200 a month in addition to any required community service.

The Manatee and Sarasota Drug Court programs each have approximately 140 to 145 clients. The managers said the number fluctuates as participants enter and complete the program.

"What the program attempts to do is provide a structure for recovery," James said.

The 12th Circuit has an approximately 80 percent success rate in participants not being arrested within 18 months of program completion, James said.

However, the program may be in jeopardy.

Walt Smith, trial court adminis

trator for the 12th Circuit, noted financial needs of the growing program when discussing Manatee County's $458 million proposed budget at Thursday's county commission work session.

Smith sought $52,000 for an additional counselor and $10,000 for drug testing an increased number of clients.

Public Defender Larry Eger sought $75,000 for a coordinator and an attorney, plus money for bills already accrued.

He said that, otherwise, he would be unable to keep an attorney working there, adding, "It would effectively end Drug Court in Manatee County."

James said it is important to remember the benefits of Drug Court go beyond helping with substance abuse issues.

"If those people couldn't do drug court they'd be in jail, and the jail is close to being overcrowded," James said.

Randall added that since Drug Court was established in 1997, "88 babies have been born drug free." Without the need for specific treatment for those newborns, more than $12 million has been saved, she said.