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Seven graduate from Drug Court
Participants speak of divine interventions, newfound strength
web DrugCourtDH
Tonie Shackelford wipes tears from her eyes while giving a speech during Tuesdays Drug Court graduation ceremony at the Liberty County Justice Center. Seven participants graduated from the program, which requires two years of intensive substance abuse therapy and judicial supervision. - photo by Danielle Hipps

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Though members of the Drug Court program hold fundraisers and pay toward their rehabilitation, the program is in need of money, Superior Court Judge Jay Stewart said.

The program, which currently has more than 40 clients, operates in conjunction with a 501c3 organization to fund rehabilitation efforts through The Recovery Place, he said.

To donate to the organization, call Stewart’s office at 739-4922.

The sky is now the limit for Ludowici resident Tonie Shackelford.

After battling prescription drug addiction for more than 10 years, she joined six others in graduating from the Atlantic Judicial Circuit Drug Court on Tuesday, an event that marks a new life chapter for the group.

Superior Court Judge Jay Stewart presided over the ceremony, which was held in a Liberty County Justice Center courtroom packed with the graduates’ friends and family and current Drug Court participants.

“This is a whole new journey,” Shackelford said after the ceremony. “After today, I have to be strong enough to stay in control.”

Shackelford, who works at an insurance agency and a tanning salon, cried as she gave a speech about what the program means to her.

Though one graduate was absent for medical reasons, the others told stories of “downward spirals,” “divine interventions” and learning that they are not mere “victims of circumstance.” They also boasted about their professional and personal accomplishments, which include strengthening family relationships. 

“For many years, drug use and drug abuse have shaped the criminal justice system both here and throughout the country,” Stewart said, adding that substance abusers typically move in and out of the criminal system in a predictable pattern.

“I’m oftentimes confronted with the question: What is Drug Court? And quite frankly, I love that question,” Stewart said at the beginning of the ceremony.

Drug Court is a rehabilitation-based alternative to incarceration and other legal sentences, he explained. Different courts have used the system for as long as 30 years, but the Atlantic Judicial Circuit began its program in 2009, serving Bryan, Evans, Liberty, Long, McIntosh and Tattnall counties.

The program’s first graduation, with nine graduates, was in April.

The program’s benefits are two-fold, Stewart added. It offers people a chance to better themselves while reducing strain on the criminal system and taxpayers.

“Last time I checked, it cost about $37,000 a year to incarcerate someone, but the taxpayer pays less than $2,000 for Drug Court,” he said.

Before becoming participants, candidates are screened with a two-part process to determine whether they are eligible for the program.

Known dealers and those with a history of violent or sexual crimes are not accepted into the program.

During the two-year period, participants must attend outpatient treatment several days a week and participate three times per week in either Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, according to Recovery Place treatment director Kascey Ifill. They also must comply with a 10 p.m. curfew and are subject to random searches and drug and alcohol screenings. They must be enrolled in school, employed or seeking employment.

Each participant also must earn a G.E.D., perform 80 hours of community service, pay $2,000 toward the cost of treatment and pay any restitution or child support obligations.

In Shackelford’s case, the program spared her a two-year jail sentence. Upon completion, pending criminal charges against participants are dismissed, and those who used the program after adjudication are considered to have fulfilled their sentences.

Near the end of the ceremony, Shackelford’s mother, Bo Croft, stood to speak about the importance of the program to her family.

“I’d like to thank you for bringing my child home,” she said to Stewart and the program coordinators.

Croft was one of about 20 friends and family members who came out to support Shackelford. In an interview after the ceremony, Croft said that she has seen marked change in each of the graduates since her daughter began the program.

“At first, I was a bit hesitant,” she said. “Once she got into the program, she started showing me what she was capable of.”

Croft sees that the graduates are no longer controlled by their dependency. She credits the success to the program’s tight-knit environment, counselors Kascey Ifill and Breanne Hall and former counselors Karla Sapp and Arthur Nixon.
“It touches your heart that these counselors really care about people — it’s not just their job,” Croft said.

Now that she has more time on her hands, Shackelford plans to throw herself into her work, she said. But the graduation is bittersweet.

“Don’t get me wrong — it feels good to be done,” Shackelford said. “But I’m also a bit sad. This is a whole part of my family that I have been around every day.”

She plans to return for Thursday alumni meetings and said her graduating class likely will continue to offer each other support.

“I haven’t felt this strong in a long time. I can stand on my own two feet — I can do it,” Shackelford said.

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