From left, David Lee Turner, Eddie Lee Kent, Judge Albert Collier, Thomas Richards and Darrell Whitaker at Thursday’s Drug Court graduation. (Staff photo: Kathy Jefcoats)
JONESBORO — Darrell Whitaker said he spent his early life splitting his allegiances between the church and what he knew to be right and the streets and what he knew to be wrong.
“My mother was faithful in the church and my father was faithful in the streets,” he said. “At the age of 15, my feelings of rebellion and disobedience won out. I decided there would be no more church, school or rules. My mother was not happy with my decision.”
Whitaker was one of four men graduating from the Clayton County Drug Court program Thursday night. It was the eighth such class, giving the program 20 graduates since its inception.
Eddie Kent, Thomas Richards and David Turner took turns with Whitaker in sharing their accounts of what led them to have to choose between prison and a life free of drugs.
Judge Albert Collier presides over the program.
“These are four changed lives right here,” he said.
The graduation came in the middle of the first week of the trial of Sheriff Victor Hill, accused of 28 felonies, over which Collier is also presiding.
“Someone told me they were surprised to see me here tonight,” said Collier. “I’ve been a little busy, but I wasn’t going to miss this highlight. I’m very proud of you who successfully completed the program.”
Drug Court participants endure a grueling regime of meetings, therapy sessions, random drug testing, curfew, 336 hours of community service and unexpected visitors, Collier said.
“The most popular thing for those of you in Drug Court is have to endure is having visitors come check on you at night,” he said, drawing chuckles from the knowing audience. “This is not a program you can slide through. It’s quite an accomplishment to be able to complete this program.”
Participants attended the ceremony to cheer on the graduates and to get a sense of what it’s like to finish the program. Members of the Drug Court team were also there. The four men thanked officials, Collier and their families for support. Each had a different story to tell.
Kent said he started smoking marijuana in middle school and was soon drawn to the “glamour” of the drug trade.
“My dad worked on cars and all the drug dealers cars were in our yard,” he said. “They all had nice cars so I wanted to sell drugs for a living.”
His life spiraled into a cycle of drug use, thefts to support his habit and incarceration. He met the woman he would later marry and father two children with but still struggled to stay sober.
“I found out about Drug Court and my wife said I could do it,” said Kent. “I knew it was time to get my life straight for my wife and son and now our little girl. If it wasn’t for Drug Court and my family, I probably would be doing the same things.”
Richards said he turned his life around after discovering God in prison.
“I started learning the truth about God,” he said. “Addiction had a strong grip on me.”
Turner gave all the credit to his family but acknowledged getting to sobriety wasn’t an easy task.
“On Dec. 11, 2011, I made another bad choice,” he said. “I found out about Drug Court and wanted to try it to see if I had a chance. I learned that drugs and myself don’t mix. I still have bad days but my worst days are better than my best day on drugs.”
Whitaker wasn’t shy about praising the program and its lifesaving impact on him.
“I’m very impressed by the Drug Court program,” said Whitaker. “It was tough. I probably violated every rule in Drug Court and even some they had to invent. A big ole ‘thank you’ goes out to you all.”
Whitaker said he was also blessed that his mother stood by him through his trials and tribulations.
“It’s a blessing to see her still standing in my corner after all this,” he said.
Will Simmons, former Clayton County Courts administrator was guest speaker for the event. He is court administrator in the Sixth Judicial Circuit. Simmons told the group that everyone has something in their lives with which they struggle but there are ways to cope.
“Perseverance, perspective and attitude,” he said. “All of us struggle with something. We may not like where we are but those in this program have to know you have what it takes to be successful.”
Simmons told the graduates to never look back at their failures.
“This is a new beginning,” he said. “Keep going forward and don’t look back.”