WILKES-BARRE — On the surface, it was a typical graduation, with cheers and hugs, cell phones capturing photographs and videos of beaming diploma recipients.
There were balloons, speakers imparting inspirational pep talks about the future and some, so overcome with emotion, dabbing at tears in their eyes.
The difference: this was a “transition ceremony” for offenders who spent at least six months proving they could stay sober and complete customized programs in Luzerne County’s Reentry Service Center, commonly known as a day reporting center.
Run by GEO Reentry Services, the center housed in a commercial property on Wilkes-Barre Boulevard teaches offenders how to change their criminal thinking and behavior so they can stay out of the county prison, largely through proven techniques involving role-playing.
During Tuesday’s ceremony in the county courthouse rotunda, graduate John Chernowsky and his wife, Laura, told the audience the center program helped rebuild their family.
John said he proudly joined the military and was deployed to Iraq but was later medically discharged for a traumatic brain injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
He self medicated to help him sleep and stay calm which led to a drug addiction that “spiraled out of control.”
Initially distrustful of the center program, John complied with the treatment plan and gradually let his guard down. He has obtained an associate’s degree and regained his family’s trust. His wife is expecting their second child.
“The day reporting center was a blessing in disguise,” he said.
Laura struggled to maintain her composure as she told the audience what it was like watching her partner lie and sneak around. Some people won’t understand until they are forced to deal with addiction, she said.
“John, my sweet John, was using and abusing drugs,” she said. “I was confused. I blamed myself. I prayed for help. I lost hope. Our life was destroyed.”
Laura was skeptical the center could help but has witnessed her husband “go from rock bottom” to attaining a degree and becoming a respected member of their church community.
Pam Elliott also approached the podium with her son, graduate T.J. Long, to provide a mother’s perspective.
Elliott was shocked and devastated to discover her son was battling a heroin addiction and remembers the uneasy feeling she woke every morning, worrying he did not make it through the night. She implored parents and loved ones of the addicted to try to remain supportive of addicts.
“It’s just like a person with cancer. You can’t just throw them away,” Elliott said.
She also urged law enforcement to continue going after drug dealers. She said she’s personally chased drug dealers out of her Wilkes-Barre neighborhood.
“There are too many people dying,” Elliott said. “This county is worth fighting for.”
Her son said the center program changed his thinking and behavior.
“This wasn’t easy. I didn’t think I could be here today,” Long said. “Now I see a future for myself.”
County Judge Tina Polachek Gartley delivered the main address. Newly appointed county Manager C. David Pedri told the graduates he is in the same position, as they are all starting a new chapter where they will be judged on their actions.
“It is not about what you did in the past. It’s what you do now,” he said.
The center, which will mark its sixth anniversary in July, costs the county $38 per day as opposed to around $97 for lodging in the county’s overcrowded prison system.
Participants are nonviolent offenders with no sex offenses who are out on bail, approved by a judge for early release from prison or given a last chance to stay out of prison on a parole violation.
When offenders start the program, actuarial assessments indicate they have an 86 percent chance of committing another crime. By the time they leave, that likelihood is reduced by 42.2 percent, statistics show.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.