Four men and one woman on Wednesday turned a new page as the inaugural Liberty County DUI Court graduating class.
The ceremony, which commemorated two years of success with intensive outpatient treatment — including counseling sessions, random drug screens, employment and education requirements — was the first of its kind offered in Liberty County. Those who had either two DUIs within five years or three in their lifetime were eligible to participate.
State Court Judge Leon Braun called the graduates heroes and spoke about the value of the program, a shift in justice culture from previous punishments for such offenses.
“I’ve been on this bench 20 years, and I’ve seen them come and go …,” Braun said. “You used to think when you get on the bench, you lock them up and, by God, they’ll learn, and they’ll do what you tell them — it’s not going to happen. If you don’t help them, it isn’t going to work out. It simply will not work.”
Liberty County Sheriff’s Office Capt. David Edwards said the program currently has about 20 participants and is open to people who have received a second or subsequent driving-under-the-influence misdemeanor.
“At some point in their lives, they got in trouble,” Edwards said Tuesday. “To get through two years sober and get through the program and accomplish what they’ve accomplished is really remarkable.”
The graduates, most of whom requested their names not be used to protect their privacy, spoke about the program’s impact and lives with renewed priorities.
The first graduate said the program has empowered him to purchase a home, and he is working on purchasing another.
The second graduate cried as he read his emotional speech, and his family captured it on video from the galley.
“It was never the gavel or handcuffs that kept me straight,” he said. “It was knowing that someone depends on me as a father and a husband.”
The female graduate spoke about realizing that she did not have a drinking problem, but rather a “living problem … an outward extension of an inner turmoil” that she used alcohol to cope with.
During her counseling course, she became involved with helping people behind bars cope with their own addictions, and she said she continues to carry the message of recovery in the community and to extend the conversation about addictions to school children so that addictions of all kinds might be eradicated.
Graduate CJ Coleman said he was ecstatic to be there, surrounded by friends and family.
“If you would have asked me 109 weeks, five days, 16 hours, 40 minutes ago, I probably would have said, ‘I’m CJ, my body’s sore, my thoughts are nothing, and I feel good,’” Coleman said. “I was just confused. I didn’t know where I was going. But today I say this with pride and no fear of humility because I no longer live, feel or think the same way as I did upon entering this program.”
In a surprise twist, the final speaker asked Judge Braun to come down from the podium and gathered Capt. Edwards and three counselors from the Recovery Place before each of the five thanked them and presented them with plaques to commemorate the first class.
“And now you see why we do it,” Braun said. “It’s worth it. For those of you who have family members here, we give you new family members — and that’s what it’s all about.”
Court funding is provided in part by the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, the Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and Liberty County’s operating fund.
Edwards added that in a time of budget crunches, the county saves money that otherwise would be spent to keep DUI offenders incarcerated. Another economic benefit of the program is that the program requires participants to be employed full-time.