Howard DUI and drug court program draws praise

When Daniel went to his court hearing for an alcohol-related arrest last year, he didn't know the first thing about Howard County District Court's DUI and Drug Treatment program.

But on the day of his graduation from the program 13 months later, and coincidentally the anniversary of his 18th month of sobriety, Daniel is one of the program's model graduates.

"This was really a blessing," Daniel said, addressing his 12 fellow graduates and onlookers inside a courtroom at District Court last week. Daniel requested that his full name not be used.

The voluntary program is grant-funded and offers an alternative to incarceration to those battling comparatively minor alcohol and drug addiction.

"Jail is not always the answer," said Daniel at the graduation ceremony May 22. "Had I been punished for what I did, I would have lost my house, I would have lost my son, I would have lost a lot of things I worked very hard for."

While District Court Judge Ricardo Zwaig can cite numerous studies and reports citing that drug and DUI court works, all he needs on graduation day is to look on the faces of the programs graduates.

"Why do we as a community put so much effort into drug court and DUI court? The answer is simple. Because they work," Zwaig said

"One thing you don't see on graduation is the physical change people go through," he added. "When you are under the throes of an addiction, your skin doesn't look right, your face doesn't look right. Your attitude isn't right. Nothing is working."

According to program coordinator Bobbie Fine, the Drug and DUI Court provides support to those with addictions to drugs and alcohol through a case manager, who sets up services like Alcoholics Anonymous and a relapse prevention program. Those who suffer relapses are given sanctions, which range from a warning from the judge to a weekend in jail.

Graduates typically spend between a year and 18 months in the program, although it is not uncommon for those with relapses to spend more than two years.

The program is divided into four phases. As participants graduate to each phase, they visit the court for check-ups less frequently, which prepares them for life after graduation.

Fine said the program has a maximum of 50 participants at one time, split evenly between drug court and DUI court. The program has graduations in November in May, and last week's ceremony was the 17th graduation since the program began in June 2004.

On a day like graduation day, where the court room is full of happy faces of participants and their families, Fine says it makes her job feel worthwhile.

"I was up there crying," she said. "I see them when they first come in, I see them with yellow skin, I see them out of work, sometimes they come right from jail. I see what they look like and I see them today. We all get so proud."

The participants were presented with a graduation certificate, a letter signed by Sen. Ben Cardin, and a honorary proclamation from the County Council presented by council member Mary Kay Sigaty.

"Seeing your success today, from my perspective and my colleagues perspective, is absolutely spectacular," Sigaty said.

Although graduation marks a significant milestone in their lives, the graduates know that a piece of paper doesn't mean their battle with addiction is over.

"I might be graduating, but I haven't really graduated. What I have is ongoing and there is no finish line. I have to deal with it every day," Daniel said. "I can't think too far ahead. I can't say for sure if I will ever drink again. But I can say not today, and if I keep doing that I'll be OK."

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