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    Drug Court celebrates first class of graduates

    By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 24, 2002

    LARGO -- Pinellas County's Drug Court celebrated its first graduating class on Tuesday, with 49 people who have received treatment, passed numerous drug tests and landed jobs.

    "I think so far it's done as well as we could possibly expect and it shows that treatment works," Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger said.

    People accused of nonviolent, drug-related offenses are among those eligible for drug court, which seeks to help people overcome drug habits that have led them into crime. They must agree to treatment and regular urine checks, and must get jobs to complete the program and avoid jail time.

    For those who complete the program successfully, the charges against them are dropped, or adjudication is withheld at sentencing. And, proponents say, they have fought back drug addiction and gotten their lives together.

    "Everything seems to fall into place after getting drug-free and crime-free," said Thomas Toy, drug court coordinator.

    "For most of them, it hasn't been that way in so long, if ever."

    In this class of 49, three people earned high school diplomas through GED tests, three entered college, seven got drivers' licenses reinstated, three caught up in child support payments and a drug-free baby was born to one of the graduates.

    But not everyone makes it. Those who commit new crimes and fail at treatment can be sent to prison.

    The drug court began in January 2001, and now supervises roughly 1,300 defendants. Circuit Judge Lauren Laughlin, who presides over the drug court, said she, 17 probation officers and other staff work hard to keep tabs on those battling addictions. In other settings, offenders face monthly drug screenings. In drug court, it is often weekly.

    "It's not like sentencing them and waving goodbye," she said.

    Laughlin said she asked one person before her if he was staying drug-free and he said, "Yes ma'am, what's the point? You'd catch me."

    State Attorney Bernie McCabe said the program is promising, but requires continued study. "I think it's worth a try. I'm encouraged by what's going on here . . . only time will tell whether it works or not."

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