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First Clayton DUI court 'graduates' seven

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Dione Benjamin reflected on the last 15 and a half months of hard work and treatment for alcohol abuse, as he graduated from Clayton County's DUI Court program on Thursday at the Harold R. Banke Justice Center in Jonesboro.

He, and six other people from the court's first graduating class, were appearing in court to receive certificates of completion.

Benjamin talked to friends, family members and well-wishers about the changes which have occurred in his life since he agreed to participate in the program.

"It's hard work, but I don't have to drink today," he said. "I have friends and family in my life."

The last year was hard for the DUI Court participants, and some said they considered just quitting and accepting whatever judgment the court system issued as a result, but all of them echoed similar words saying they were better people because they participated in the program.

"It's a hard road ... but with treatment and everybody there to offer their support, you learn about yourself and how to live your life again," said graduate Victoria Patterson, of Lovejoy.

The DUI Court was started by Clayton County State Court Judge Linda Cowen a year ago as a way to help reduce the number of people who were convicted of driving under the influence, after they already served a previous sentence for the same crime. People who have recently been convicted of DUI have the option of participating in the DUI Court program.

The DUI Court oversees the people as they carry out their sentences, which can include treatment and community service. People who do everything they are supposed to do as participants in the program get rewards, such as a lower fine, or some time knocked off the amount of community service they have to serve. People who cannot complete the program are sent to jail.

Cowen said statistics from other DUI Courts show participants are three times less likely to be arrested for DUI one year after completing the program than people who did not participate in it. She also said the participants are four times less likely to be arrested for DUI two years after completing the program.

"The promise of a safer Clayton County was very important to me in creating and maintaining this court," Cowen said. "It is my hope that these people can now live happier, safer and more sober lives. I'm confident these people who are graduating are never going to commit a DUI ever again."

Richard Highland, a psychologist from Associated Counseling and Education Services in Jonesboro, who works with the DUI Court participants, said the process can seem daunting at first, because of the amount of work required to complete the program.

"Sometimes, we make attempts to find freedom through drugs and alcohol, but the freedom we find is temporary and it's an illusion," Highland said.