Inside a packed courtroom Monday, six people sat with lei piled high around their necks and certificates on their laps for successfully completing Big Island Drug Court.
These graduation “gifts” were mere symbols, said 3rd Circuit Court Judge Ronald Ibarra. The most important gift, he explained, was the one that could not be seen: what was inside their heads and hearts.
That is what led them to achieve sober lives, new direction, hope and continued avoidance of criminal actions that originally landed them in the treatment program in the first place. These six are among the nearly 180 people who have graduated from Big Island Drug Court since it began more than a decade ago. Monday’s ceremony was the program’s 26th commencement and was held in conjunction with National Drug Court Month.
“Your hard work and perseverance have brought you to this day, and the knowledge and experience your acquired at Big Island Drug Court will help you as you start the next chapter in your lives,” U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono wrote in a message to the graduates. “By facing challenges and overcoming your obstacles, you demonstrate that individuals who want to change, can change.”
For Corinna Kuahiwinui, Big Island Drug Court helped her turn her life around. As a high school sophomore, she began drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana because it was the thing to do. She experimented with cocaine at age 21 and then quickly moved onto meth. Kuahiwinui was hooked after her first hit.
“At first, I would only smoke on occasion. And then, every weekend. And before I knew it, I was smoking everyday. I hid my addiction from my family for as long as I could, but they weren’t stupid. I had lost 60 pounds in less than a year and my entire behavior and attitude had changed,” she said. “But denial was my best friend. Being a responsible adult and paying my bills took a backseat to my addiction. Everything my parents had taught me while growing up didn’t seem so important anymore. Everything that came out of my mouth was a lie. My finger became itchy and I did just about anything I could to get my next fix.”
Kuahiwinui lost her job, her car was repossessed and she was in debt. None of this had any impact on her. I wasn’t until she was arrested, taken to jail and given a chance to participate in Big Island Drug Court, where she remained for 23.5 months. It gave her time to detox and re-evaluate her life, as well as brought fellowship with those in Bridge House, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. With the support of her family and those who cared about her recovery, she progressed, overcame a relapse and graduated.
“Today, life has a new meaning,” she said. “It means being honest with myself and everyone around me. It means being the best parent I can possibly be to my daughter. Life today is having peace within myself and being surrounded by the people who truly love me.”
Big Island Drug Court has been operating since 2002 and has maintained a 90 percent recidivism success rate for graduates over the past 12 years. Recognized as a leader in the state, Big Island Drug Court combines intensive judicial supervision, mandatory substance abuse treatment, drug testing, escalating sanctions, positive incentive, accountability and compassion to break the cycle of drug addiction and crime. It provides “leadership for community-wide anti-drug efforts” while also bringing “together the justice system, treatment, support groups, employers and community partners in the fight against drug abuse, especially crystal methamphetamine,” according to a proclamation from Mayor Billy Kenoi.
Since its inception, 358 people have entered Big Island Drug Court and 179 have graduated. To date, there are 105 participants in the program, said Grayson Hashida, Big Island Drug Court coordinator. Its clients are non-violent drug offenders with high risk and high needs, he added.
Participants apply for acceptance to the minimum 12-month treatment program after being referred by a judge during sentencing. Most spend an average of 18 months to 2 years in the program, followed by three years of unsupervised probation. This is a way of life, one that doesn’t resemble the Hollywood glamorized version, Ibarra said.
Key is the Big Island Drug Court team, which includes probation officers, judges, attorneys, judiciary staff, police officers and treatment providers. Also important are family members, friends, employers and the community, Ibarra said.
Participants meet every week with the judge for a hearing review and while progressing through the program’s phases. They are always subject to supervision; reporting, including filling out a time sheet of daily activities; comprehensive drug treatment; frequent drug testing; and immediate punishment for any violation. Mistakes result in quick sanctions like community service, jail time or the writing of essays. Incentives, such as early dismissal from a review or gift certificates from the Friends of Big Island Drug Court, are also given those making progress. In an effort to treat the whole person and in a holistic way, every aspect of a participant’s life is addressed, Ibarra said.
To graduate, participants must have no positive urinalysis for 90 consecutive days; no unexcused absences from scheduled services; complete all phases; maintain employment for three to five months; volunteer for three to five months; have stable housing for 10 to 12 months; complete payment of all treatment fees, outstanding court fines and other fees; obtain a General Educational Development or Competency-Based Community School Diploma; write an essay on how they plan to live a clean, sober and law-abiding life; submit a relapse prevention plan; have a minimum of three sober supports; and do an interview.
Monday, the six graduates courageously expressed turmoil and triumph while emotionally, and sometimes comically, telling their powerful stories of how they transformed their lives of destructive behavior into positive ones. They often expressed gratitude to those who helped them along the way, especially those who pushed them hard to do better, saw their enormous potential, and got them to stop lying to themselves. Some parents also shared their thoughts, fears, pride, advice and encouragement with the audience, which included current program participants and alumni.
Each time, their authenticity, wisdom and heart shone through every word. Emotions stirred. Stories sunk in.
“I let my old life pass, and I’m living a new life. I have discovered who I am as an individual. I am smart, strong, independent, but not afraid to ask for help. I am a mom, and most of all, I’m living a life that’s not always easy, but I’ve learn to overcome my trials and learned to let go what I can’t control,” said graduate Jovina Lagaret. “… I feel drug court is a good program, but it’s only as good as the client makes it out to be. It works if you work it. Anything is possible if you believe it is. And most important, you need to learn to forgive yourself and keep it real. I’ll always be an addict, but it doesn’t mean I have to be addicted no more.”