Staff Photo: John Bohn Gwinnett County Chairwoman Charlotte Nash speaks at the Gwinnett County Drug Court graduation ceremony held at the Georgia Supreme Court Judicial Building on Friday. Governor Nathan Deal also spoke at the event. At left is Judge William M. Ray II, who presides over the Gwinnett County Drug Court.
ATLANTA -- Having shepherded 126 men and women from the depths of substance addiction to sobriety, Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Billy Ray, founder of Gwinnett's celebrated Drug Court program, passed on the leadership torch Friday morning in Georgia's highest tribunal, alongside the state's top dignitaries.
A former legislator, Ray's passion for the job can be directly traced to his adolescence. At 13, his peach-farmer father, an alcoholic known for being contentious, was murdered by a neighbor during a dispute in rural Georgia. Those events stoked Ray's interest in law and empathy for the addicted.
Ray headed the team that founded Drug Court seven years ago, borrowing its structure from several other counties, including Hall. Participants have tallied 3,600 sober days, a 98 percent employment rate and 14 drug-free babies born during the program since.
Known as a tough-on-crime politician and unflinchingly stern judge, Ray was a somewhat unlikely leader who was taken by the program after attending a single class.
"It's really been a labor of love," Ray said, during a graduation for six former addicts at the Georgia Supreme Court in Atlanta. "It's much cheaper to provide counseling than to lock people up."
Methamphetamine remains the most common street drug from Drug Court participants, while prescription medication abuse is rampant, Ray said. The graduating class Friday included a former meth addict, a grandmother and the daughter of a Gwinnett County deputy, who gushed, "This is the greatest accomplishment that I've had in my whole entire life."
In January, Ray was elected as the secretary and treasurer for the state's Council of Superior Court Judges, a post that will consume more time and directly conflict with his Drug Court duties on Fridays. Taking the helm is Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Thomas Davis Jr., a former Navy officer and "crusty soldier type" whose style will contrast Ray's astringent but relaxed approach, Ray said.
Davis said he's been convinced of Drug Court's rehabilitative and fiscal value after some initial skepticism.
The allure of Drug Court goes beyond the chance to clean up. Charges against the offenders -- who must be accused of nonviolent crimes and cannot be suspected dealers -- are often dropped after graduation.
Gov. Nathan Deal, who has championed rehabilitative programs such as Drug Court as a cheaper alternative to prison, noted that this year's legislature granted an extra $10 million for those programs. Deal's son, a judge, runs the Drug Court program in Hall County.
"You are our exhibits," Deal told graduates. "Don't let us down. We're counting on you."
Chief Justice George H. Carley heralded Gwinnett's Drug Court program as being among the nation's best.
Gwinnett Chairwoman Charlotte Nash, tapping her "country" roots, saluted graduates for their "stick-to-itiveness" in pushing their demons to the background. Nash watched her father struggle to kick cigarettes for years.
"I understand it's a fight that is never over," she said.