JONESBORO — Nine graduates made their way around the parking lot of the Banke Justice Center Thursday afternoon cheering, beeping car horns and expressing pride for having completed the Adult Felony Court program.

The graduation was held drive-thru style due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The 18- to 24-month program gives non-violent Clayton County drug offenders with a substance abuse problem the opportunity to avoid jail and start over.

Deborah Boddie, accountability courts coordinator, said the program is “extremely intensive and very structured with constant judicial oversight.”

A team of eight, the judge and counselors work with participants to improve their quality of life, stay off drugs and reduce recidivism.

“Our graduates really put in the work,” Boddie said. “We give them the tools to be successful, and it’s up to them.”

She said many times drug users who enter the program don’t believe in it, but as time progresses they learn they can be helped.

“They learn about themselves. They learn they have self worth and control and that everyone makes mistakes,” she said. “They know we care about them. It’s a good feeling to see what the drug court can do to assist them.”

Superior Court Judge Aaron B. Mason oversees the program. He was emotional Thursday talking about each graduate and the obstacles they overcame to complete the program and start anew.

“Each one of our graduates makes me so proud,” he said. “There’s so much talent and potential each one of our graduates have.”

He said at the start of a program cycle he tells participants that his goal is not to see them graduate, but to live life in recovery and do it with a future plan.

Statistical information gathered in Clayton County between 2012-16 shows 2% of graduates reoffend.

Mason said research-based evidence shows that rehabilitation is possible. Rather than locking them up and throwing away the key, thereby costing taxpayers millions of dollars to care for them, they’ll be contributing members of society.

He said when he first started his career, he was quick to lock offenders away. But in the decade he’s been overseeing the program, Mason said he’s learned that doesn’t have to be the case.

“When I first started I didn’t realize how dear this program would be to me. It’s good to know you’re not too old to change,” he said. “We’ve all come to love our participants, and we’re thankful.”

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