Kicking the habit: Hamilton County Drug Court graduates 11 participants

While his father James Womack, left, daughter Jozelen Womack, and Judge Tom Greenholtz watch, graduate Jason Womack, center, hugs his wife Charlene Womack as she holds their two-month-old son Kobra Womack, during Drug Court graduation on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Womack reconciled with his wife and family during his progress through Drug Court.

Former drug addicts came to Hamilton County Criminal Court on Monday to party at one of the largest Drug Court graduations in the court's 10-year history.

Eleven of 113 Hamilton County Drug Court program participants graduated from the approximately 18-month program.

"This is about transformation," Judge Tom Greenholtz said. He spoke to a courtroom so packed people stood along the walls to fit in the room.

Drug Court graduations mark the best days Greenholtz has had in criminal court, he said.

photo Judge Tom Greenholtz kneels to talk to Tatum Brown, son of graduate Randy Morgan, second from left, during Drug Court graduation on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
photo Participants and their supporters fill the courtroom of Judge Tom Greenholtz to attend Drug Court graduation on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Some graduates have overcome drug addictions that plagued them for years, and now they've remained drug free for more than a year.

Drug Court is the last stop before a person goes to jail, said court director Elaine Kelly, who founded the program in 2005 with retired Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Rebecca Stern.

The Drug Court program is intended to be a marriage between treatment and criminal justice supervision, Kelly said.

Because the court has grown so large, Kelly said, it no longer could be held only on Mondays.

She said people in Phase 1, 2, and 3 will continue to meet Mondays. But those in Phase 4 and 5 will meet on Fridays, starting in April.

Greenholtz spoke about the participants' transformations as several glassy-eyed mugshots of the graduates were projected on a screen, showing how they looked when they started the program.

Then came smiling photos of participants as they neared graduation.

Many of them had become detached from their families because of their addictions. But, thanks to the Drug Court program, they mended those relationships.

"Let me announce you as you go forth into the world," Greenholtz said to each graduate, placing his hand on their shoulders and calling their names. "This is your send-off into the world."

He encouraged the graduates to find time to celebrate.

Some families held balloons inside the courtroom. Others recorded and photographed the ceremony. Outside the courtroom, blue tablecloths covered tables filled with fruit, cheese and cracker trays, pizza and a large cake that read "Congratulations Graduates."

Several graduates thanked their family, friends, caseworkers and employers who helped them stay drug-free.

Brian Sales, a 2008 Drug Court graduate, addressed the packed courtroom Monday.

"I should've been locked up for 19 years," he said. "This changed my life. Now I've got my contractor's license."

Cendy Barber came with her 14-month-old granddaughter to cheer for her foster daughter, Carolynn KC Ferguson.

Barber fostered Ferguson from the time she was 3 days old until age 13. Ferguson, now 25, got so hooked on methamphetamine - the drug of choice for 60 percent of Drug Court participants - that she and Barber parted ways, and Ferguson went to live with another family member. After going through Drug Court, she kicked a 10-year meth habit.

Barber came Monday, glad to see Ferguson doing well.

"I got my family back," Ferguson said. "I got a job. I've got my integrity back. My word means something now."

Graduate Tony Williams hugged the judge after getting his certificate.

"I'm thankful for this program, because I was tired of going to jail," he said.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at [email protected] or 423-757-6431.