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Drug court produces first graduates, and high hopes

South Boston News
Retired Circuit Judge Joel Cunningham, who spearheaded Halifax County’s drug court program, and Freda Holliday, right, who has implemented it, posed with new graduates Valerie Hamlett and Maurice Harris Thursday. (SOMcL photo) / April 16, 2018

“It’s an exciting day in Halifax County,” said retired Judge Joel Cunningham Thursday afternoon. “I’m as excited as a kid at Christmas.”

The occasion was the introduction of the first graduates of Halifax County’s Drug Court program, Valerie Hamlett and Maurice Harris.

About 30 family, friends and supporters of the special court and the two graduates filed into the historic upstairs courtroom to hear their stories and to show their appreciation for the graduates’ success.

“We’re doing something different here in Halifax County,” said Cunningham, noting that this is the only area in southern Virginia to have a drug court.

“We’re changing lives and restoring families and saving money for our local taxpayers with this program,” said the judge, who led the effort to create the program. Cunningham pointed out the mission of the drug court is ”to protect public safety by combating substance abuse among community members, while holding substance use offenders accountable with the goal of returning drug-free, law-abiding citizens to society, re-building families and communities, reducing recidivism and saving taxpayer dollars.”

Both Hamlett and Harris spoke about their paths to becoming drug-free. Harris told those in attendance that she “hit rock bottom in March of 2017” before being admitted into the drug court. With tears streaming down her cheeks, Harris added she “is truly grateful for the help that I have received.”

Her mother, who has been very supportive of her efforts, also rose to thank Cunningham and the Drug Court team members for their work. Harris said she had also received support from her brother, sister and young niece and members of her church.

For Hamlett, it was the support of Judge Kim White that was instrumental in turning around his life. Hamlett said White not only introduced him to the program, “she talked to me like I was a man.” He also recalled going to bed the night after his court hearing, thinking that he would be incarcerated by the following morning.

Instead, Hamlett was relieved to find out about the program and know that he would not be in jail, and would be given a chance to do better. “It meant that I could go home and play ball with my son,” he said.

Both graduates have been model participants in the program, Cunningham said, noting that it had not been an easy assignment.

“For those of us who have never been addicted to drugs, it is hard for us to imagine just how tough it has been for them to comply with the required treatment and to attend drug court twice each week. They must undergo drug testing two times each week with monthly random home visits by drug court staffers or law enforcement. They also must seek employment or carry out community service each week.”

Clients may be in the program for one to two years. In order to graduate, they must have met all treatment requirements and be actively involved in an After Care program and have developed an After Care Plan. They must have completed at least two months of the After Care program and remain abstinent from all mood-altering substances for 90 consecutive days.

The graduates also must be current with all Drug Court fees and have completed all community service assignments given by the court staff. They must also be actively involved in outside recovery programs and be employed at least 20 hours per week, or be actively involved in an education program for no less than 20 hours. Lastly, they must remain free of sanctions for any major violations for at least 90 days.

Both graduates successfully fulfilled those requirements within their first year of participation and both have been role models for others in the program, Cunningham said.

According to Freda Holliday, coordinator of the program, there are now five other participants in the drug court. She expressed hope that local attorneys will encourage more of their clients to look into participating in the program.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Tracy Martin, a member of the Drug Court team, thanked Cunningham for his vision in spearheading the court and Holliday for her hard work in implementing the program.

Cunningham also thanked Board of Supervisors chairman Dennis Witt for the board’s support of the program, which he said offers real savings for county taxpayers since it is estimated that incarceration costs at least $20,000 per client per year.

Cunningham pointed out that back in 2015, county supervisors provided $40,821 in seed money to get the program started. Later, the special court received a federal 80/20 grant to support its operations for three years.

Anna T. Powers, coordinator for the Drug Treatment Court Division of the Virginia Department of Judicial Services, drove down from Richmond to attend the graduation service and show her support for the local effort.

“We’ll have more graduates,” Cunningham said Thursday. The program he advocated to implement will continue to pay off for clients, their families and county taxpayers, the judge added.

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