JOHNSTOWN -Marie Postorino understands what the spring graduates of Fulton County Drug Court endured to earn their certificates of graduation.
About a decade ago, she was there herself. For nine years, she's been sober, and she feels it's her calling to share her story and provide mentorship for those traveling the same path.
"I feel I'm giving back what was so freely given to me," she said. "I love it [attending the drug court graduation.] But this is where the real work begins - when they leave Drug Court. But you can do it if you really want to stay clean."
Fulton County Judge Richard Giardino, left, stands with Fulton County Drug Court graduates, from left, Anthony Papa, Sean Smith, Scott Bennett, Jeffrey Mayer, and Dennis Myers. Also pictured are past graduates Marie Postorino and Kellen Brown, and Drug Court Resource Coordinator Sara Luck.
The Leader-Herald/Amanda Whistle
This spring Fulton County Drug Court graduated 10 people in its 19th graduation ceremony.
The graduates were at one point arrested for a drug or alcohol-related crime and sentenced to Drug Court. Typically, misdemeanors earn one year in the program, while felonies require three years of Drug Court.
Drug Court has been in operation for 14 years in Fulton County, with more than 350 participants. A total of 180 people have graduated from Fulton County Drug Court. Graduates have had 22 drug-free babies and 30 participants have become homeowners, according to information provided by Fulton County Drug Court Resource Coordinator Sara Luck.
Luck said on average nationally, Drug Court has a "no rearrest" rate of 75 percent for graduates.
Drug Court, presided by Fulton County Judge Richard C. Giardino, provides an alternative to prison for certain non-violent offenders age 16 and older.
The benefit, officials said, is that drug-dependent offenders are kept out of the prison system, saving taxpayer dollars and giving them a chance to turn their lives around and break free of drug abuse and crime.
Dennis Myers, of Johnstown, didn't think he really had a problem when he was stopped for driving while intoxicated a few years ago. When he was stopped and charged with felony driving while intoxicated two weeks later, he said he realized he needed to turn his life around.
That's exactly what Myers, 34, has done over the past three years and two months of Drug Court. Instead of working in asbestos removal, he's now following his dream and works in Gloversville as a tattoo artist. He's also licensed to practice his art in Schenectady County.
"I did asbestos removal for a while, and I said enough is enough," Myers said. "I started drawing a lot more. My fiancee and I started talking, and I've always been into tattoos."
Next month he will marry his fiancee, whom he met in high school, but was reunited with two years ago while he was participating in the Drug Court phases to graduation.
He asked Giardino to preside over his wedding, as the judge has been an integral part of his journey the past two years.
"Dennis has grown tremendously," Giardino said before handing him his certificate. "It was a battle. He'd been on his own since he was young. Then he had to deal with us telling him how to live his life."
They key to succeeding in Drug Court starts with honesty, he said.
"In the beginning phase, you just have to be honest with them and yourself," he said. "You've got to want it. You can't just skate through."
All 10 graduates shared "thank yous" with Giardino, the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery Prevention Council staff, their families and others who helped along the way.
Giardino had family members of the graduates, many teary-eyed as they watched their loved ones receive diplomas, stand and be recognized.
"Without your support it would be impossible for them to succeed," he said.
Drug Courts have become a common tool in the U.S. Court system over the past two decades, according to a news release.
The program helps its members along through strict supervision, drug and alcohol testing, evaluation and education to help them address their problems. The combined efforts of the judiciary, prosecution, defense bar, probation, law enforcement, mental health, social services, and treatment professionals help to ensure success in the program.
"Every case is done case by case. It depends on what the individual needs," Luck said. Some cases require a 28-day program or some type of out-patient care.
"When you get down to it, these are really nice people," she said. "They're all good people. They just have this problem they need to address."
A group of program participants five years ago started a group called Clean Scene, which has been meeting since then to carry on volunteer projects to clean cemeteries, portions of the FJ&G Rail Trail or other projects.
Several of the past graduates spoke during the ceremony, sharing stories of how they're working full time now, loving life and helping others. Since Drug Court includes four phases, certificates were awarded to all who have completed the different phases.
Drug Court is state funded and subsidized by grants from the U.S. Bureau of Justice.
Michael Kavanagh, professor emeritus of management at the University at Albany, who has done evaluation research on the program, noted that the local Drug Court has had increasing success rates.
"I think the reason for that is the main thing I saw here is this can-do attitude. [The staff] has a can-do attitude, and it spreads," he said.
Amanda Whistle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.