Nearly every Tuesday for the past three years, Judge Gerald Smoak, now 82, and his wife would drive from their home in Mount Pleasant to the Beaufort County Courthouse and back -- an hour and a half each way.
Smoak, who announced his retirement as the county's Adult Drug Court judge last week, spent those afternoons offering redemption to people facing jail because of problems with drug and alcohol.
Those sentenced to the court often had lost everything-- spouses, jobs, homes. But if they completed the Drug Court program, which offers rehabilitation instead of prison time to nonviolent offenders, they got a second chance.
"All the time I spent is worth it just to see one of them graduate," Smoak said. "It's a miracle. They stand up straight, they're laughing. They got their whole life back."
A 'PASSION' FOR THE WORK
Smoak came out of retirement from Circuit Court judgeship in 2010 to serve in the Drug Court. Unlike his previous post, his new role required him to be a counselor, as well as a disciplinarian, said court program director Michael Lee.
Those assigned to Drug Court must see a judge weekly, get a job and submit to regular drug and alcohol counseling and random drug tests. It costs them about $1,800 and takes about a year to complete.
"It's a unique court in that you really get to know the people you're working with and their stories," Lee said. "(Smoak) had a passion for it, and it showed in the way he approached people from the bench.
"He knew when to be tough and when to give advice."
If Drug Court participants stumbled, Smoak would have to impose penalties ranging from public service to prison.
But if they got clean, their records were cleaned, too. Charges pending against Drug Court participants are expunged.
Smoak knows what such a fresh start can do. His own decision to quit drinking more than 40 years ago transformed his life, he said, "just like daylight and dark."
A woman slated to graduate from Drug Court in two weeks said Smoak often shared his personal stories to motivate the people appearing before him on their way to sobriety.
"He was fair, but firm," she said. "He was inspiring to me."
Before Smoak came to Drug Court, 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone said he wasn't sure whether the court could be redeemed.
Like some of its participants, it had a troubled past.
Its former director, Judge Manning Smith, husband of former Beaufort County Clerk of Court Elizabeth Smith, was stripped of his position by S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal in August 2009. Toal never disclosed why she ousted Manning Smith, but her decision came just days after Elizabeth Smith was charged with misusing public funds. A federal investigation later revealed Elizabeth Smith diverted federal child support enforcement funds to the Drug Court to help pay her husband's salary and other Drug Court costs.
Stone said he rarely referred people to the court in those years. Under Smoak, he said, it has been completely transformed.
Smoak saw many success stories during his years as a judge.
Lee, a retired Beaufort police captain, became the court's director in 2010 when Smoak became its judge. Seventy percent of those assigned to the court since then made it through, Lee said.
The vast majority of graduates also stayed clean. Lee said only 11 percent of the graduates were arrested again. Those involved with running the program say it's a cheap and safe alternative to sending low-level offenders to jail.
Erin Dean, a Beaufort attorney who serves as an alternate judge, will step into Smoak's position. Stone said he doesn't expect the court to miss a beat.
As for Smoak, helping others get sober is addicting. He said he plans to get involved again with the S.C. Bar's Lawyers Helping Lawyers program, which provides counseling for attorneys facing depression or substance abuse.
Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/IPBG_Allison.