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GIVING AS RECEIVING – DRUG COURT PARTICIPANTS GET SECOND CHANCE, GIVE BACK
Edinburg, Texas – At the Hidalgo County Drug Court’s annual Christmas dinner, 92nd District Judge Ricardo Rodriguez shared his appreciation with the participants who have enjoyed tremendous successes with the comprehensive rehabilitation program for first-time and low-risk offenders as an alternative to incarceration. Rodriguez reminded them that “the Christmas season is a time to remember that you all have been given a second chance at life, to learn from the mistakes you have made and to stay on your path of sobriety.”
Rodriguez urged participants to “pay it forward,” and to serve as models for their families and peers to bear witness to participants making meaningful and positive change in their lives. This year, participants chose to show their appreciation by donating new toys to the Hidalgo County employee annual toy drive. At the Christmas dinner, held last Tuesday, over 150 toys were collected as part of the drug court’s efforts.
Hidalgo County’s drug court began in 2004, and is a multi-faceted approach at rehabilitation. Participants are selected based on the Court’s recommendation, and have been determined to be responsive to treatment with a non-violent offense. Participants undergo intense individual and group counseling with licensed chemical dependency counselors, are tested for substances on a regular basis, frequently meet with probation officers and case managers, and are seen bi-weekly in a group setting at the Judge’s court. While the drug court provides swift sanctions to those who relapse while in the program, the incentive for staying on-track is high – participants may have their cases dismissed upon successful completion of the 18-month program.
Since Rodriguez took the helm in 2008, a total of 288 participants have entered the drug court program; to date, 132 have successfully completed. Rodriguez takes a hands-on approach to implementing the program. He closely monitors participants’ progress and regularly meets with the care team to discuss cases. Rodriguez devotes every Tuesday evening to meeting with the group, where he talks with participants and encourages, supports and celebrates their successes. Rodriguez truly believes in the rehabilitative process, for those that want to change.
“We see a lot of cases go through our judicial system in which the crime actually derives from underlying substance abuse problems,” Rodriguez stated. “If we can help treat the illness, the results benefit us all – sober individuals refrain from using, thereby reducing illegal commerce and criminal activity; the jail system experiences less overcrowding; and eventually, the sober, rehabilitated individual will be a contributing member of society,” Rodriguez continued.
Roberto,* who successfully completed the program this year, was inspired to return to school and finish his degree. He credits Rodriguez and the drug court for changing his life. “Sometimes I had lost faith in myself, but your constant support and speeches have helped me sense that I belong and made me feel like I have a purpose in this world,” Roberto wrote in a letter to Rodriguez upon graduating from the program.
Another successful graduate, Antonio, wrote, “This journey… has been the most difficult yet also one of the most rewarding things that I have gone through in my life. I have come to realize that there is a different way to live your life, that I don’t need the crutch of drugs and alcohol to get me through. What has helped me in the drug court program was the way I was treated as someone that needed help, not just a criminal.”
Felix,* a nineteen-year-old who has been in the program for four months, attested to Rodriguez’s dedication to seeing the participants succeed. Felix was seventeen when he began using cocaine; one day, he was stopped on a traffic violation and had a small amount of the drug in his possession. “I was scared,” Felix admitted. “I didn’t know what was going to happen to me.” As a first-time offender, Felix met the criteria, and began the program in August. After being spared from going to jail, Felix has abided by all the mandates of the program, and has not tested positive for drug use. “It was easy to stop using,” Felix remarked, “knowing that I did not want to make the same mistake again and end up worse. I feel very lucky to have been given this opportunity,” Felix continued. “I’m not going to mess it up.”
“It makes me feel proud to know that we are making an impact in their lives,” Rodriguez commented. “Not only are the participants getting the help that they need, but they are taking responsibility for their lives and in turn, impacting others in a positive manner as well.” Rodriguez continued, “To get a second chance at life, especially during this Christmas season, we all feel truly blessed.”
*Not real name