“For the first time in my life, I’m living on my own,” Kristina Kastanek said. “I have my own apartment. I’m mostly sufficient with bills and everything like that. I’ve never been this successful. These are things that a lot of people get at an early age— when they’re in their 20s—and here I am, almost in my 30s. But I’m finally getting it.”
Most of all, Kastanek said she wanted to thank her family for putting her through the sort of experience that made it possible to win her independence.
Not college. Not a job. Not religion. But drug court.
“Otherwise,” Kastanek said sat her graduation from drug court Friday afternoon at the Flagler County Courthouse, I probably wouldn’t be alive.”
Walton Kinney, another graduate, said he wanted to get back to driving his tractor on his farm and that he was a little nervous. “Drug court has changed me,” he said. “I was on my way to prison. That’s for sure. I like being sober. It’s nice. That’s all I got.”
Presiding over the ceremony, Circuit Judge J. David Walsh reminded everyone of drug court’s purpose: “A second chance to have a clean record, an opportunity to get sober and stay clean.” He called it the best drug court in the state, with this group of graduates accumulating 2,166 total clean days and $1,136 total paid in restitution.
So far, 270 defendants have been admitted into Flagler County Drug Court in eight years. There are 38 current participants, with an overall capacity of 42.
The program, which he called “difficult and not for the squeamish,” actually began in Florida in 1989 as an experiment. It worked so well that the Legislature formalized it into law so it could be replicated elsewhere as a voluntary treatment program for non-violent drug abusers. Most of those in the program these days are not crack, heroin, meth or marijuana users, but abusers of legally available prescription drugs–pain killers such as oxycodone, oxycontin and the like. Prescription drug overdoses kill more Floridians than do illegal drugs.
Because drug court is for non-violent offenders only, many individuals who are going to prison aren’t eligible, Walsh said. Of course, not everyone who enters the program is successful either, he said. Those who fail are often incarcerated but those who make it through may have their sentences reduced. Each of the graduates on Friday had impressive stats to boast, such as court appearances, restitution paid, and, of course, number of clean days. Additionally, as the program proceeds, they have to get a job.
Drug court is often a plus for many employers, Walsh said. “We have found that many employers, especially in this county, are very supportive,” once they learn that their potential employee is getting daily supervision and being tested regularly, because they’re reliable. “This drug court, I have found—we’re in a smaller county—and even though we’re in a smaller county we have such great resources—law enforcement, drug treatment people, probation supervision, medical supervision—that you don’t really see in other programs.”
For this particular drug court, according to Walsh, there have been no new convictions for 64 percent of graduates. Seventy-five percent have no new felony charges at all, with 92 percent having no new drug charges. In addition to the obvious benefits to families, Walsh said, each drug court graduate saves the state in legal, recidivism, or jail costs.
One by one, Walsh called the graduates up to the rostrum, presenting them with a framed photo of them in their rejuvenated state, while court television screens displayed mug shots of them before drug court and after. He also handed out a key chain medallion to each graduate. On one side it read “Flagler County Drug Court” and “where treatment and justice meet.” On the other side, it said “Recovery…” on the top, a tree of life in the middle and “…is the key to a successful life.”
“For me, today is just another day,” said Brandon Banchick. “I’m not trying to get excited about it. Mainly, because I don’t want things to change. Things are going good right now. I don’t want to get overly excited and loose track of what’s important.”
The graduates at times looked a little awkward, sitting in front of a room full of friends, family, and the many individuals who’d helped them through the program— counselors, deputies, court personnel. But they looked happy to be there.
One person in the audience who was thanked repeatedly by the graduates was Patricia Brown, a Salvation Army treatment counselor based in Daytona Beach. Brown, who goes by Mrs. Trish, serves in all four counties that make up the Seventh Judicial Circuit–Flagler, St. Johns, Putnam and Volusia. Her husband is a recovering addict. “It’s been a passion to show people another side of life, because that was something that I dealt with personally,” Brown said.
There are no tricks of the trade, she said. Somewhere in the midst of the drug court participants’ program, “I ask them to introduce me to the person who came into the program and now help me understand the person who is leaving. And I want to help them to believe in the person who is leaving.”
One memory that always serves as a reminder of her mission: a woman with two young children who “so much wanted to make a change in her life.” She ended up dying of her addiction. “I’m reminded that life’s not promised to us. Don’t die like this. And life is worth living,” Brown said. There’s no telling when someone in the program will experience that “ah ha” moment, she said, that says they’re ready.
After each graduate had come to the podium, Judge Walsh asked if there were any past graduates present. A blonde woman stood up and proudly raised her hand. Her name was Jenel Buxman. She’d graduated drug court in 2012. She and her brother Chad, an intern for Break the Cycle, an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center, both went to the front of the courtroom and played guitar to an inspirational song Jenel had written. She does this at each graduation, approximately every three months. Jenel said she looks at her key chain medallion every day.
But it was a first for Chad. “I told myself I shouldn’t be nervous because the people who should be nervous are the ones graduating,” he said. “It’s more their day so I shouldn’t be so selfish and only think about myself and I should think about how they’re feeling and that helped with the nerves. But yeah, it was fun.”
His mother died of alcoholism. His cousin who was his best friend overdosed. But from what he’s seen, the 7th Circuit Drug Court definitely works, he said, summing it up simply with this about his sister: “She was horrible before.”
“When they say they give you the tools to live life, that’s exactly it,” Jenel said. “Because a lot of us grow up in broken homes and have parents who abuse drugs and they don’t know how to live life. And what drug court does is it gets you away from drugs long enough for you to see the light and between the jobs and the meetings—and meetings (like Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous) are really your medicine.” Of any disease, she said, “This is one that you have to be convinced that you have. It’s definitely a mind disease.
“I’m just paying it forward,” she said about performing in front of the group. But then she had to go. She had to get her daughter ready for a recital. Summing it up, she said, “Some people can’t do it and some people can. I don’t know.”
House Rep. Travis Hutson had given this ceremony’s keynote speech. While Hutson’s father had always told him that the early bird catches the worm, when he got to be a teenager, Hutson would respond, “But the second mouse gets the cheese.” That’s because the one in a rush is usually the one to get caught in the trap. So it was with those graduating from drug court. They started out as the first mouse but, fortunately, by going through the drug court program, they get a redo as the second one, the patient one.
“I strongly believe in second chances,” Hutson, who sits on the board of Epic, a St. John’s County-based center for recovering drug and alcohol addicts, said. “Rather than locking them up and throwing away the key, how can we make this individual a productive member of society?”