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'It changed my life': Drug court graduates leave feeling built up

It takes a minimum of 13 months to complete the drug court, the Carroll County program that offers people with substance use disorders who have been convicted of other crimes an alternative to jail time or prison.

At 17 months, it took Ridge Long a bit longer. But on Wednesday evening, he nevertheless was one of seven — six men and one woman — to make up the newest graduating class from drug court.

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In his comments to the crowd of about 100 gathered at Carroll Community College, Long told them that it wasn’t that bad if you just did what you had to do in the program, but that he was thankful for having the option to do it.

“We’re addicts, we do better in a structured environment,” he said. “Take the time to find yourself.”

Robert Barton, a graduate who spent 15 months in the program, finishing in March, was a little less sunny about his time in the program, but was equally happy with the result.

“I definitely didn’t want to do this, but it changed my life,” he said. “I’m just happy I went through it.”

It is a tough program, acknowledges Judge Fred Hecker, who was the master of ceremonies at Wednesday’s graduation as well as the judge in charge of the program. About half of those who enter the program fail to graduate.

“The purpose of the program is not to make them like it. We don’t care if they like it, they just have to invest themselves in it and work it,” Hecker said. “It’s an alternative to incarceration. In the process, we are trying to change behavior. That is really what drug court is all about.”

And Long, in an interview following the graduation, was clear that drug court wasn’t something he chose for fun.

“For me it was an extensive prison sentence or here, so it’s a choice but it’s really not much of a choice,” he said. “But do I think it’s good? Yeah. It definitely has benefits for the county. They treat people the way parole and probation should treat you — more rehabilitation as opposed to longer sentence.”

Drug court is meant to be a structured program that sets standards for participants and makes sure they meet them, with a whole team dedicated to working with each individual, according to Hecker.

“The goal of problem-solving courts is to build a system like we have, which allows us to have a much more hands-on approach to supervision,” he said. “Every week we meet, we talk about every person in the program, and when they are not doing well, we have the time, because we have the resources, to be able to stay on top of their case.”

Sometimes that can mean a sanction when someone doesn’t follow the rules, perhaps some community service, but Hecker pointed out that the program is about building people up, not breaking them down.

“I didn’t ask it of these individuals, but it’s fair to say that for many of the people who graduate drug court, it’s the first graduation of any kind they have ever been to,” he said. “What I’ve heard at graduation from every graduate is, I really believe, a genuine, sincere expression on the part of the graduates that what drug court has done for them has been meaningful.”

It certainly was for Wednesday graduate Ashley Brown, who spent 572 days in drug court, from Aug. 2017 through March.

“This is a platform that has built me up,” she said in her comments to the crowd. “Judge Hecker really cares. You helped me more than you will ever know.”

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