State Court Judge Jason B. Thompson, DUI Court Coordinator Nova Brown, and Commissioner Charles Rousseau join Nick Smoak in celebrating his graduation from DUI Court. (Staff Photo by Christopher Dunn)

Courtrooms are often the site of justice and punishment. The afternoon of March 15, courtroom 2D saw one man sign a new lease on life and stand up as an example of redemption and hope for countless other lives.

Alcohol can destroy lives, but with the help of the Fayette County DUI Court, offenders are getting a chance to turn their lives around before it is too late. The first graduate of the program was celebrated recently as a symbol of redemption and example for others following behind him.

Nick Smoak is the first graduate of the Fayette County DUI Court, but he won’t be the last. The graduation celebration gathered together current participants in the program with the DUI Court team and countless law enforcement, government, and legal officials celebrating both Smoak’s achievement and what it means for the county.

“Nick has demonstrated that the program is successful and it’s working,” recounted State Court Judge Jason B. Thompson at the ceremony. “Nick’s successes reflect the court’s success.”

Implemented in January 2016 under the direction of Judge Thompson, the need for another option for non-violent offenders battling addiction was crystalized when Thompson had to hand down a stiff prison sentence in another case.

“When that man walked out that door for a very long time, there were a number of people who lost in that room. We all lost that day,” said Thompson at the ceremony, noting that the man lost his freedom, a boss lost an employee, a wife lost her husband and income earner, two elderly parents lost a son, and two daughters lost their father. “After that day, I asked myself if we can do better.”

Saying there was “no tool in the state court toolbox at the time,” Thompson sought help to find a better way. Community members gathered, and officials from other counties with successful programs were called on for their expertise. With patience and sacrifice, Fayette County created their own DUI Court, the only one in the Griffin Judicial Circuit.

The Fayette County DUI Court is a team composed of Judge Thompson, Solicitor General Jamie Inagawa, DUI Court coordinator Nova Brown, defense attorney Michael Gramins, probation officer Ginny Winter, Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Stapleton, and Turning Point substance abuse programs. Team members work together to support each participant as they address and fight the substance abuse issues that led them into the criminal justice system.

Offenders with two or three DUIs in five years with a need for treatment, no violent convictions, and no convictions for selling or distributing a controlled substance can be eligible for the program. If accepted into the program, the intensive process, which includes individual counseling, weekly group sessions, AA or NA meetings, and random testing, lasts 12 to 18 months. With successful completion of the program, participants also have the opportunity to have fines and community service hours forgiven.

Beyond the graduates, the program saves so much for the community.

“This program, it saves lives, it saves families, it saves jobs, it saves dollars,” said Thompson.

The average cost to house a prisoner is $87 a day. Avoiding jail and rehabilitating a productive citizen brings great value.

“We have saved our community $110,000,” he said. “But this is not about money. This is about changing lives and how they approach every day.”

Keynote speaker County Commissioner Charles Rousseau focused on time and the impact the second chance has on both Smoak and those who will follow him.

“Time. It’s something that’s a commodity. It’s something we can invest in and can all see a significant return from if we invest it wisely,” said Rousseau. “Oftentimes we take it for granted without realizing how precious it is.”

Rousseau shared a poem he found especially poignant, “Just A Minute” by Dr. Benjamin Mays.
“I’ve only just a minute,
Only sixty seconds in it.
Forced upon me, can’t refuse it,
Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it,
But it’s up to me to use it.
I must suffer if I lose it,
Give an account if I abuse it,
Just a tiny little minute,
But eternity is in it.”

Decisions that took a split second led the participants down a road to the DUI Court and close to throwing their lives away.

“When we conceptualize time, a minute is just quick in a blink, but sometimes the consequences of decisions we make may happen in the blink of any eye,” Rousseau said. “Take that 60 seconds to reflect and be accountable for that decision. It’s critically important as you go forward.”

A bit of thought can go a long way.

“I’m asking you today to reflect on the importance of how you spend your time,” he said. “The key to managing my time is to managing my actions. The key to managing my actions centers around managing my decisions. The key to managing my decisions is managing what I feed myself about my purpose in life.”
Smoak expressed his deep gratitude for the program getting him back on the straight and narrow.

“Before I started this program, I was living a very casual, out-of-control, no-rules lifestyle. I lived by the definition of insanity. I lived every weekend for the party expecting different results. I lived on my own terms and my own rules,” said Smoak.

Things changed when he got his third DUI at 26 years old. Smoak was especially thankful for his attorney, Nick Garcia, getting him into the DUI Court program and turning his life around.

Through dedication and sacrifice, he has a new lease on life, and that was the message he shared with his classmates.

“This program is much like (Alcoholics Anonymous). It works if you work it,” he advised.

Beyond Smoak, the program is already having an impact. Other current participants shared their achievements as they have progressed through the program, ranging from new jobs or new vehicles to fitness and sobriety milestones.

Smoak will continue to serve as a role model.

“He is the example you can get it done,” said DUI Court Coordinator Nova Brown.

Court community liaison Teresa Hampton agreed.

“This program is successful because you made it successful,” she said.

For his success and positive attitude, Thompson invited Smoak to be the first member of a DUI Court Board of Advisors.

“You’ve been at the forefront. You are the leader. You’ve shown that it can be done,” said Thompson.

To symbolize where he’s been and where he’s going on his new chosen path, Thompson presented a keychain with a sailboat as a reminder he’ll see whenever he picks up his car keys.

“We wanted you to look at something to always remind you of the good choices you’re making so far,” said Thompson, reading its “I can’t control the wind, I can only adjust my sails” inscription. “Right now were going to hand you the keys to your life.”