After speeding through the Beaufort County Drug Court in 10 months -- a program that usually takes a year -- a 31-year-old Bluffton man stood at the front of a courtroom Tuesday with some words of wisdom for others facing trouble.
"If I can do it, y'all can do it, too," he said. "Just do what you have to do to get out of here."
The man pleaded guilty to a grand larceny charge last year but had it expunged from his criminal record. He was given a standing ovation from attorneys, drug and alcohol counselors, and more than 30 others crowded into the small courtroom.
Success stories like this are why 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone says he took hold of the county Drug Court -- which had been plagued by controversy -- in September 2009.
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"The kid that is graduating from our program tonight won't be breaking into anyone's house tomorrow," Stone said. "At the end of the day, it's all about public safety. Our program has been succeeding through a cooperative effort among a very dedicated group of professionals. That's how it's supposed to work."
Stone didn't always have such confidence.
A TROUBLED PAST
Beaufort County's Drug Court, which diverts nonviolent offenders facing drug charges from prison into rehabilitation, has its own troubled past.
For years, it was funded by contributions from local towns, including Hilton Head Island, Beaufort, as well as Beaufort County. However, it operated as an independent nonprofit organization with little oversight, under former director and judge Manning Smith.
Smith began his work with the Drug Court as a volunteer in 2001, but by 2008, he was earning $60,000 for part-time work as the program's director, according to IRS records.
By August 2009, S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal had stripped Smith of his position. Though Toal never disclosed why she revoked Smith's judgeship, her decision came just days after Smith's wife, former Beaufort County Clerk of Court Elizabeth Smith, was charged with misusing public funds. Elizabeth Smith was found guilty and sentenced to probation last year.
A federal investigation later revealed that she also diverted federal child support enforcement funds to the Drug Court to help pay her husband's salary and other Drug Court costs. She pleaded guilty in April and is awaiting sentencing, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Even before federal investigators revealed financial mismanagement, Stone said he seldom referred cases to Drug Court.
"I had no confidence in the program, and I think, as the events of history have unfolded, it's become pretty obvious why," Stone said.
Since taking over the court two years ago, Stone said he has emphasized accountability.
"They are two totally different programs," Stone said. "I can't get into all of the things that happened before, because I wasn't there and that wasn't our program. We have a different level of professionalism now."
A NEW BEGINNING
Michael Lee, a former Beaufort police captain who acts as the program's administrator, and retired Circuit Court Judge Gerald Smoak, the program's primary judge, form the nucleus of Stone's drug-court program.
Smoak has the power to impose sanctions, such as public service or additional treatment, on those who violate conditions of the program.
"We want people in this program who want to change their lives and get their lives back and will do everything we ask them to do," Smoak said. "It's not any easy program, by any means."
The three-phase program requires participants to regularly attend drug or alcohol counseling, pass scheduled and random drug tests and get a job, according to the Solicitor's Office.
Participants who don't comply can be booted from the program and sent to serve their original prison sentences, as one former participant found out recently.
"I had a guy come in and tell me he was selling cocaine," Smoak said. "He told me, 'Judge, I'm not doing it, I'm just selling it.' I appreciated his honesty, but you can't sell cocaine, so I had to send him back to Circuit Court, and he's now doing six years. I don't want to have to put people in jail, but I will."
The Bluffton man who graduated this week was the fourth person to graduate from the revamped program, which has 24 other participants, Lee said.
FUNDING CHALLENGES AHEAD?
Stone said the Drug Court's budget was about $148,000 this year, which includes state funding, a $48,500 contribution from the Town of Hilton Head and administrative fees of $1,800 paid by each participant.
Although he expects to come in under budget this year, Stone said he is concerned a decline in state and local governments' tax revenues will jeopardize the program.
"We've been able to keep a certain number of people in the program, and presumably, we will add some more people to the program at some point," Stone said. "What will that cost? We just don't know that yet. We won't know until we get there."
Whatever challenges lie ahead for Drug Court, Stone and his team said the program is worth saving and is making a difference.
"Days like today's graduation really make it all worth it," Lee said. "When you help someone, you're not just helping them, you're helping that person's family and that person's friends. You really can affect a lot of people by helping out that one person."