For the first time in a long time, Thomas Dechiaro feels in control of his life.
After graduating from the latest class of Suffolk County's Drug Treatment Court on Friday, he is no longer facing jail time for resisting arrest and possession of marijuana. But more importantly, he said, he's not using crack and he's staying away from bad influences.
"I'm living responsibly," he said. "I set goals for myself. The key is staying focused."
Dechiaro was one of 18 to graduate Friday from a program that has been diverting nonviolent drug offenders from criminal courts into an aggressive treatment program since 1999. One key to its success is that failure guarantees a stay in jail, said Ed Gialella, director of the county's various treatment courts.
"We decide the treatment" for each defendant, he said. "We don't negotiate."
During the minimum 12 months that people are in the program, there may be backsliding, some of which is treated with short jail stays, he said. But most people in the program take their treatment seriously and learn how to function while sober while getting education or job training. As part of the program, they must go to court every week for progress reports and drug testing, and probation officers can go to their homes to test them or search them at any time.
"It is an intensified program," Dechiaro said. "Sometimes you need that supervision."
One of the program's probation officers, Brett Dowling, jokingly told the graduates, "Some of you needed a little more encouragement, and by encouragement, I mean handcuffs."
Gialella said some graduates relapse into substance abuse afterward, like any addict, but graduates are more likely to recover from relapses and rarely get arrested again.
"Our graduates are in a better position themselves, and society is in a better position as well" because of the program, Suffolk Administrative Judge C. Randall Hinrichs said at the graduation.
Drug Court Judge John Iliou thanked the probation officers, prosecutors, attorneys, social workers and other counselors in the program, but he and others made a point to acknowledge the friends and family members who stood behind program participants.
Graduates also heard former New York Jets quarterback Ray Lucas, now an analyst on the SNY network, give a keynote address about how addiction to 800 pain pills a month nearly killed him. "I'm sober today, 16 months," Lucas said. "I'm a father again. I'm a husband again. I don't wake up angry anymore."
Then, each graduate said a few words. Several said the program saved their lives.
"I take my sobriety very seriously," said one woman, a mother of five. "I have a lot riding on my shoulders."
As for Dechiaro, he said he is working at Suffolk County Community College's counseling center while taking classes.
"My goal is to get into this field and help others," he said.