Standing at a podium in the Luzerne County Courthouse rotunda, Audrey Sutton credited the county’s day reporting center for changing her perspective.
“I feel so contrite about my past and mistakes that I have made and can’t explain how blessed that I feel that I was granted a chance to change my life around and see things in a new way,” the 21-year-old told her 37 fellow reporting center graduates and their families Wednesday.
Run by GEO Reentry Services, the center provides customized recovery programs for those charged with or sentenced for nonviolent offenses, mostly drug-related. Participants fall into three groups: those out on bail awaiting conclusion of their cases; those approved by a judge for early prison release; or those allowed to avoid prison time due to a parole violation.
Wednesday’s ceremony was for participants who spent at least six months passing drug tests and completing approximately 350 hours of treatment sessions at the center on Wilkes-Barre Boulevard. Participants learn how to change their criminal thinking and behavior, largely through proven techniques, such as role-playing how they will respond to situations that have led to their past problems, officials said.
Sutton is out on bail awaiting trial in county court for charges of homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, reckless driving and other offenses in connection with the death of 21-year-old Kingston resident Casey Michalek, a passenger in her vehicle, following an Oct. 23 crash in Edwardsville, records show.
She told the group Wednesday the center allowed her to build trusting relationships and speak candidly with nonjudgmental and supportive staff about her involvement in a “very tragic, devastating life situation.”
Sutton said she is exploring career options and plans to start college in the summer.
“One day, I’d like to tell my story to young adolescents and adults to help them in their difficult times and make different decisions in their life,” she said.
Debra Staples, another graduate, said she was an addict for 30 years and turned 60 in a jail cell before she obtained encouragement, character-building techniques and life skills at the center.
“I would hope that others would take advantage of the center and not waste their lives like I did,” Staples said. “Life is great. Reality is great.”
The final graduate speaker, Brian Doris, said center staffers showed him how to stop playing the victim and turning to drugs and alcohol to escape his fear and anxiety.
Now 33, Doris said he was an addict for 21 years and had been in and out of jails for 11 years. He accepted help through the center and another treatment program realizing he would die or land in jail for a long time unless something changed.
“I’ve wasted a lot of my life, and it really wasn’t worth it,” said Doris, who received applause for his announcement that he celebrated a year of sobriety last week.
‘You can do it’
County Prison Treatment Coordinator Christina Oprishko said the ceremony is a milestone for participants.
At any given time, the county typically has more than 100 in the program, which will mark its seventh anniversary in July.
Unlike the county’s drug court, the reporting center does not result in the erasing of criminal charges from participants’ records, officials said. However, graduation from the center could be highlighted as a positive for those awaiting trial and sentencing.
Without the center, the county would be forced to house participants in the county prison system at an estimated daily cost of $110 per inmate as they await adjudication or serve full sentences instead of receiving early release or parole, officials said. The county pays a daily rate between $23.80 and $26.90 per participant, depending on the overall population count, for the day reporting center.
When participants 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, according to the center.
“Nothing personal, but I hope to never see any of you again,” Oprishko said, referring to the goal of reducing recidivism.
County Manager C. David Pedri asked the graduates and their family members to take turns standing for recognition and acknowledged the difficulties loved ones face coping with an addict.
“But you did it, and it’s because of you that your family members are standing here today,” he said.
County Judge Michael T. Vough told the graduates the first offender he placed in the day reporting center four years ago had a long history of drug problems.
He read a thank you letter she recently sent him, in which she said the center saved her life and made her a better person. The woman had been in and out of jail and in drug rehabilitation programs 19 times before the center, her letter said.
Offenders often ask Vough for another chance, particularly at sentencing. He equated chance with a gamble, like trying to win at the casino or buying a lottery ticket. Instead, Vough said offenders should be seeking an opportunity, or a set of circumstances that make it possible to do something.
“I am a believer in this program,” Vough said of the center. “If you want an opportunity to change your life, this is a place where you can do it.”
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.