DUI Court gives repeat offenders another chance

DUI Court gives repeat offenders another chance

From left to right: Rep. Derrick Jackson, Adam Smith, Rafael Duran, Brent Smallwood and Judge Jason Thompson (Photo by Justin Fedich)

Redemption is a nine-letter word, but it’s rare to have nine chances at redemption, especially when it comes to breaking the same law over and over again. Brent Smallwood, 53, battled alcohol addiction for 36 years, has been convicted of eight DUIs, and was given little to no chance of making it through Fayette County’s DUI Court, a 14-month program aimed at rehabilitating those with multiple DUIs rather than sending them to jail.

“There are not a lot of people who think that you’re going to make it through this program,” Fayette County State Court Judge Jason Thompson said to Smallwood when he began the program, “but you and I are going to show them that you are.”

On Wednesday, in Courtroom 2D at the Fayette County Court House, Smallwood, Rafael Duran, and Adam Smith became the second, third, and fourth graduates of the Fayette County DUI Court, joining Nick Smoak, who graduated earlier this year.

The courtroom, generally a place where nerves and fear permeate throughout, was the center of a renewed sense of hope and joy for the graduates, their families, and everyone who has helped them along their journey to sobriety.

The typically serious and heavy atmosphere of sitting in a courtroom was immediately lightened as soon as Thompson started speaking, opening up a one-on-one conversation with each of the men going through DUI Court program. He treated them not as strangers, but as close friends.

“Twenty-four, what a fun age,” Thompson said to Mr. Harris, one of the men who just started in the DUI Court. “Did you get to spend it with your son?”

Mr. Harris told Thompson about how he and his son celebrated with Hibachi, and that his son even caught a shrimp in his mouth.

Thompson talked with Mr. Fisher, who said he had just received his nine-month chip. It wasn’t too long ago, Thompson reminded Mr. Fisher, that it didn’t even seem like he’d make it nine days in the program.

“I didn’t think I was going to make it through the court proceeding that day,” Fisher said with a laugh.

Rep. Derrick Jackson, the guest speaker for the graduation, took the podium and talked about how pleased he was to see a courtroom decorated with graduation balloons and cake, although he secretly wished there was ice cream as well.

Jackson addressed the elected officials in attendance, encouraging them to stay engaged with their community so that moments like the one taking place could continue to happen. He spoke to those going through the DUI Court, and asked them to tell their story.

“Help share your story so that way you can prevent a situation happening to others,” Jackson said.

Duran was the first graduate to speak, but before he did, Thompson showed Duran’s mugshot to his family and the crowd. Thompson did this before each graduate stepped up to the podium, as a way to give everyone a picture of how far they have all come.

Duran spoke about being a new person, how when he reached his low points, he thought of his family and it helped him get through.

“I don’t want to go back to the way I lived in the past,” Duran said.

As Thompson started to introduce the next graduate, the judge who had been so full of life and energy up until that point was suddenly quiet. He looked down, took a deep breath, and tried to speak through his tears.

Thompson said watching Smallwood overcome the odds to complete the DUI Court program after his long history of addiction was an inspiration.

“If we were to take a poll two years ago and say who’s not going to make it [through the program], quite honestly, most people would’ve said Brent Smallwood.”

Smith, the youngest of the three graduates and the last one to speak, lightened the mood after Smallwood’s emotional speech.

“My parents were probably ready to throw me out on multiple occasions,” Smith said, as he looked at his family standing behind him. “That’s changed now, I hope.”

Smoak was in attendance, and said he had wanted to finish the program with Smith, but seeing Smith reach graduation was worth the time they spent together helping each other make it to this point.

As a result of completing the program, Smallwood had $744.39 in court fines and 240 hours of community service forgiven; for Duran, $932.88 in court fines and 205 community service hours were waived; and Smith’s $932.88 in court fines and 240 community service hours vanished.

The day was a celebration of sorts, but the moment that captivated and moved the courtroom the most was watching a man who had been so torn down by addiction that few, including himself at times, believe he could find redemption.  All it took was an opportunity in the Fayette County DUI Court and the proper motivation, a wife and two kids.

As tears rolled down his face, Smallwood recalled a dark past.

“My two boys raised with an alcoholic father most of their life, sure they were embarrassed because there wasn’t a day I wasn’t drinking,” Smallwood said.

Smallwood turned to his two sons, emotional yet hopeful for a brighter future.

“I hope I’m a better father now,” Smallwood said, “and I love both of you very much.”

Justin Fedich

Justin Fedich is a reporter for the Fayette County News. He has been a reporter for various papers around the Southeast, including the Athens Banner-Herald and the Selma Times-Journal. Justin is a graduate of the University of Georgia with a degree in digital and broadcast journalism and a sports media certificate.