Eighteen graduates of Nassau's treatment-oriented drug court program celebrated their sobriety and freedom Friday -- and thanked the judge and counselors who kept them straight.
The heartfelt ceremony marked the 30th graduation from Nassau County Felony Treatment Court, which combines therapy, random drug tests and frequent court appearances as an alternative to prison for nonviolent addicts and alcoholics.
Of the 400 people who have completed the program since it started in 2009, only three have reoffended, said Jean McNee, a case coordinator.
"It's fantastic," she said.
Another benefit is cost-savings. Treatment costs far less than jail, with the program saving taxpayers roughly $2 for every dollar spent over five years, according to state estimates.
One of the new graduates, who identified himself as James B. of Nassau, said the threat of prison, the strict regimen and the program's "institutionalized compassion" helped him overcome a history of relapses.
"I expected to be treated like a criminal," he told the court. "It wasn't until I experienced the ultimate humility that I was really able to learn what my position and role is, which is somebody among everybody else."
The program lasts about 18 months and is followed by a one-year conditional release. Statistics on the Nassau court's dropout rate were not available.
For graduates, felony convictions can be dismissed or reduced to misdemeanors and the records sealed, depending on individual circumstances.
Lisa Barone, 39, of Queens, said she was homeless when she entered the program after 20 years of abusing cocaine and heroin.
"At first, I didn't want to go to jail," she said. "Then I didn't want to let my mother down."
She also wanted to be a better mother for her 3-year-old daughter, who was being raised by her family.
After studying "green" construction, Barone volunteered at Build It Green in Astoria, Queens, a nonprofit that recycles everything from cabinets to refrigerators.
Barone found a grant that enabled the group to hire her. She now works cleaning and organizing the warehouse.
Judge Frank Gulotta said the program, which he called a "reclamation project," should be expanded to include other felonies, such as identity theft, since many of those offenders are also addicts.
"Instead of letting somebody sit in prison for umpteen years, you are essentially producing people who can be productive members of society," he said.