For grads of rehab, tears of joy

Published May 30, 2007

CLEARWATER - There have been dark days in the life of Maxine Anderson.

She was living on the streets of St. Petersburg three years ago when she was arrested on charges of possession of drug paraphernalia.

But when she returned to a Pinellas County courtroom Tuesday, she came for a much happier occasion.

Instead of a jail sentence, Judge Dee Anna Farnell gave Anderson a diploma marking her graduation from drug court.

"I'm happy now. I'm not doing drugs. I have my own home, " said Anderson, 48, the mother of three grown children. "I have stuff that I thought I would never have again."

About 100 graduates joined Anderson at the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court ceremony.

Recovering drug users around Florida received diplomas in their own ceremonies during "Drug Court Month."

Drug court diverts drug users who meet certain criteria into rehabilitation programs that include counseling and treatment. Some start the treatment while they are still in jail.

Officials estimate that drug court saved Pinellas taxpayers almost $10-million last year by treating some drug users rather than repeatedly putting them in jail, where it costs an estimated $93 a day to house an inmate.

The first drug court in Florida opened in Miami. The state now has 106, and Florida served as a model for drug courts in other states a few years ago.

"Drug court started right here in Florida, something that we should really be proud of, " Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp told the graduates.

"This provides real hope. ... Every graduate here today has a new opportunity."

The inspirational tips that Tampa Bay Buccaneer Mike Alstott brought to the ceremony seemed particularly appropriate for recovering drug users.

"As you're sitting here, yes, you're graduating, but it doesn't end, " the star fullback told them.

He offered them a set of philosophies to guide them in their journey.

"Avoid negative influences, " he told them. "Don't give up. Don't give in. ... Keep trying. ...Never lie, cheat or steal. ... Practice makes perfect. ... A winner never quits, a quitter never wins."

Farnell has been the drug court judge for five months.

As a regular judge, she said after the ceremony, she dealt frequently with "bad people" committing crimes.

In her new post, she said she sees lot of "good people" trying to fight off the temptation of drugs.

"Now I am seeing people from all walks of life, all different ages, all different ethnicities, " Farnell said. "Every part of the county is represented."

A graduate of East Lake High School, Jacqueline Almeida said her troubles began years ago when she was arrested for possession of cocaine.

After being arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and violating her probation, she ended up on a rehabilitation program called "Project Success."

Tuesday, the young woman beamed in the courthouse hallway after receiving her diploma.

Her mother stood nearby.

"I feel like a big weight is off my shoulders, " said Almeida, 22, who lives in Countryside and works at Palm Harbor MRI.

"This past year has been really hard."

Jose Cardenas can be reached at jcardenas@sptimes.com or 727 445-4224.