Clayton County Superior Court Judge Albert Collier, Larry Yarbrough, Antonio Demons, Ninh Panthapanya, Pierre Carlton and Robert Brand at Drug Court graduation. (Staff Photo: Kathy Jefcoats)
JONESBORO — Five recent graduates of the Adult Felony Drug Court are discovering how amazing life can be once they put substance abuse behind them.
Robert Brand, Pierre Carlton, Antonio Demons, Ninh Panthapanya and Larry Yarbrough round out the list of 25 people who have graduated from the program that started in October 2009.
It takes about as much time to complete the intense program as it does to earn an associate’s degree — 22 months. At the end, graduates walk away with a certificate of completion but take away much more than a piece of paper.
“I had determination,” said Yarbrough. “I came a long way. I got a plaque for doing what I should have been doing all along.”
As part of the employment requirement of Drug Court, Yarbrough started doing handyman work.
“Me and a good friend of mine opened our own business, M&Y Construction,” he said. “In 17 months, I had money saved up, I got my license back, a car. In six to eight months, we grossed $240,000 and I have a brand new truck that is paid for.”
Clayton County Superior Court Judge Albert Collier oversees Drug Court, part of the county’s Accountability Courts system. However, Collier is assisted and supported by a team managed by Toni Bell that includes probation officers, public defenders, substance abuse counselors, Clayton County District Attorney’s Office, State Court, Superior Court, Clayton Center and Clayton County Sheriff’s Office.
Collier said it is remarkable to see addicts who are headed to prison, an institution or a graveyard make a 180-degree turn and emerge successful.
“It’s amazing to see what they can accomplish when they put that stuff behind them,” he said.
Funding for the program comes from two agencies, Clayton County Board of Commissioners and from the participants themselves, who pay $30 a week. Each participant must complete a “rigorous” agenda that includes 336 hours of community service, a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, random drug tests and curfew checks, 12-step group meetings, financial classes, getting and keeping a job and finding housing in Clayton County.
Collier said participants have to overcome two “big challenges.”
“The first is housing,” he said. “We have struggled with finding housing for our participants because we require they live in Clayton County.
“The second is transportation,” Collier continued. “The sheriff’s office supplies bikes for us to use but the county doesn’t have transportation to get them to the different events they need to attend.”
Not every participant has a valid license, having lost the privilege through DUIs. It’s not an obstacle that can be shrugged off.
“I accept no excuses,” said Collier. “As a team, we are here to help get you through the program and we will help you with resources but the responsibilities are yours.”
Not even flat tires are an acceptable excuse, as Yarbrough learned.
“I was on my way to a meeting and got a flat tire,” he said. “I got there late and they wouldn’t sign my paper. I got frustrated and got high. I was on the run for two weeks. I had a bike with a flat tire and the clothes on my back. I had nothing.”
His family turned their backs on him, too.
“I went to jail in just about every county around here,” said Yarbrough. “I did 11 months in the Clayton County Jail. Nobody would take my calls. Tough love, I guess. I thought about what I did, what I lost. I read about Drug Court and what I needed to do to get into Drug Court.”
At the time of his graduation, Yarbrough was 762 days clean and sober. When he took the podium to share his story of the road to sobriety, Yarbrough noted that not everyone makes it.
“I’m very thankful for this chance,” he said. “I’m happy to see you guys up here but there are others who should be up here. I’d like a moment of silence for a brother and sister who fell.”
At graduation, participants read a summary of how they got into drugs or alcohol and what led them to Drug Court. The stories are as varied as the graduates themselves. For example, Brand said he grew up with an abusive stepfather who went to prison.
Although he played football in high school, Brand was soon sneaking out of the house to drink and use drugs. At 18, he got his first felony for methamphetamine. While on probation, he fathered a son with another addict.
“I did the best I could to take care of my son but was arrested for meth possession twice in one year,” said Brand. “I blamed others for my failures. Looking back, I was living a pretty pitiful life.”
After getting into Drug Court and completing a 12-step program, he realized what he’d been missing.
“I now feel that life has meaning and I can serve other people,” he said. “I can be there for my son and family. I am grateful.”
Carlton, on the other hand, said he had good parents and normal family life. He was involved in sports and did well in school until eighth grade when he started hanging out with an older crowd.
Being teased for a speech impediment caused him to drown his sorrows in alcohol.
“I was embarrassed and it hurt to have the impediment, especially when the teacher called on me to read out loud,” said Carlton. “But the alcohol made me not care about being different.”
He entered college but partied so much he was asked to leave. After getting shot in the back on New Year’s Eve 1989, Carlton tried the military.
“I drank, I drank, I drank,” he said. “I couldn’t see I had a problem. I began to have blackouts.”
An addiction to crack cocaine followed and Carlton said he stole from everyone in his life. After he got caught robbing his neighbor’s house, Carlton entered Drug Court.
“I found out the good in me from the 12-step program,” he said. “I found mercy and grace of my God in understanding. I am grateful for the support.”
Demons said Drug Court is the best thing that happened to him. He discovered drugs at 14 and dropped out of school soon after. At 20, he was introduced to the love of his life.
“I started using coke and it was the love of my life,” he said. “I was robbing and stealing. I was in and out of jail. At 30, I had six kids and I was in jail, facing years in prison.”
Panthapanya also blamed getting into drugs in middle school as his first step toward addiction.
“I had an uncontrollable addiction,” he said. “I robbed and stole to get drugs. I found out I could smoke weed for free if I sold it. Wow, that’s better than breaking into houses.”
At 17, he became a father and left the street life, he said.
“But I couldn’t leave drugs alone,” he said. “I used to hide my depression. I used coke and then meth. I’m clean now. I was given a chance to start a clean life. Without Drug Court, I’d be dead or in jail.”