LAWRENCEVILLE - To make an upcoming graduation truly momentous, Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Billy Ray looked no further than an old chum from his Georgia State Capitol days.
Ray heads Gwinnett County's Drug Court, a strict regime of sobriety checks and support sessions resulting in expungement of criminal charges for most graduates. Along with its counterpart, DUI Court, the program hosts two graduations a year, meant as a spotlight for former drug addicts come clean.
In attendance Monday night will be the program's most recognizable guest to date - Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, holder of the state's second highest office.
The visit speaks to the success of what three years ago was a fledgling program - but also, Ray admits, to the judge's long-held connections in state government. (Cagle and Ray served together in the State Senate, during which their desks on the floor sat side-by-side.)
"I'm sure it's in part a favor to me that (Cagle's) making this trek to Gwinnett County," Ray said. "I think his honoring us by speaking at our graduation is, in part, recognition of the success that we and all treatment courts are having."
The graduation, set for 6 p.m. at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center, highlights a Drug and DUI Court concept that Ray and other leaders purport as a novel approach.
The programs attempt to rehabilitate drug offenders using forced counseling and frequent drug testing, with the threat of incarceration for continued drug use, said Ray.
"This approach is as compared with the traditional method of simply throwing offenders in prison, or putting them on probation without treatment," which leads to new offenses by the accused between 65 and 70 percent of the time, on average, Ray said.
The program saves "taxpayer funds that would normally be spent on jail beds," he said.
On average, Drug Court participants are sober more than a year - or 486 days, to be precise - prior to graduation. Of the court's 90 participants thus far, 35 never tested positive while in the program, Ray said.
Cagle said the graduation speaks to the redemptive nature of the program itself.
"While some (participants) may have made some bad decisions, they worked through the steps necessary to turn things around and demonstrate that they're good citizens to their community and family," Cagle said. "This is a real accomplishment which should be celebrated."
SideBar: By The Numbers
3: Years since local Drug Court's inception
37: Drug Court grads
9: Drug-free babies born to participants
83: Percent retention rate in local program
71: Percent retention rate, national average
0: Percent recidivism rate after graduating
82: DUI Court grads
2.4: Percent recidivism rate after graduating
Source: Gwinnett County Superior and State courts data