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Featured Photograph: Sobriety Court treatment director La’Pearl Simmons hands a graduation certificate to Harlyn Journet. (Photograph by Freddie Herpin.)

Editor/Consulting Writer

The context for this graduation might have seemed a bit unusual, since there were state court judges, parole officers, prosecutors and treatment coordinators presiding over the ceremony.

However for the 15 individuals stepping away from potential jail sentences and criminal court proceedings, Wednesday marked the salute of a personal cleansing process and a different path for their lives and family members that arrived for the occasion.

Those completing the two-year St. Landry Parish sobriety court program came from different social and economic backgrounds, but they each were burdened with a previous common issue, as they sought treatment rather than incarceration as a way of moving away from habitual destructive lifestyles.

“These individuals have worked hard to get their lives back together,” said specialty court coordinator Norman Rene.

The second floor courtroom at the parish courthouse was packed with spectators as each of the individuals who completed the two-hour sobriety court program filled with random drug testing, court appearances, group therapy sessions and personal accountability testimony were provided with certificates of completion in the program they chose over jail time.

Rene said the court-approved diversion program in St. Landry has thrived for 20 years and 354 individuals have now completed requirements for having their drug charges dismissed by state court judges.

This group was a bit different Rene said, since it began during the early days of COVID, forcing many of the court appearances to be held in a zoom court format.

All but four of the persons graduating from the program on Wednesday volunteered for drug diversion, while one was assigned by the judges to a family preservation program, in which the participant seeks to avoid losing contact with family members.

The other three were sent to the drug rehabilitation program due to their DWI arrests, Rene said during an interview.

Some of those recognized on Wednesday had already become employed during their participation in the program. Another is continuing to work on a Master’s Degree, while another, Harlyn Journet, said he hopes to open a restaurant.

Alanah Deaville, one of those completing the program, admitted that she had the perfect childhood, but after giving life to a stillborn child, things for her abruptly changed.

“I was into using marijuana and ecstasy and I was arrested on six charges, three of them were felonies. I was an addict and I didn’t want to admit it,” she said during an interview.

Deaville said she entered the diversion program to avoid felony sentencing, but it was difficult for her to initially comply with the guidelines of the program.

“I didn’t want to follow all the rules at first. I realized though that if I didn’t work it out, that I was facing jail and some serious charges,” said Deaville.

Colson Merikle said he was also facing some substantial incarceration time, after being charged with possession in the presence of a juvenile.

“I was thinking probably five years in jail, so it wasn’t difficult for me to get into the program. I don’t think there was ever a point where I wasn’t unhappy, especially the first six months passed in the program. I got some relationships with family back and I wasn’t feeling the need for drugs anymore,” Merikle said.

Taysha Downs said she was an “all day” drug user who was six months pregnant when she enrolled in the program.

“I thought I needed to change my life. There were times I thought about quitting, but I didn’t due to my support team and my friends. I have a son who is 16 months and a job now so I can be financially stable,” she said.

Gabrielle Pitre said she was dominated by pills until she faced felony charges in state court.

“At first it was difficult. I had been living a life of drugs and then I had to go cold turkey. There were meetings in the program sometimes four times a week. I started to realize I had a responsibility, but I kept failing drug tests. I got warnings, but the thought of jail instead really scared me,” said Pitre.

Pitre said facing incarceration created a sense of reality, although there were other issues she had to erase.

“I couldn’t keep a job, I had no vehicle. I had already totaled seven cars and my relationships with my family had broken off. I was a total wreck,” Pitre added.

Keisha Langley, who is now a program treatment counselor, said she can relate to those in the program.

“I completed what I needed to do three years ago. I had a probation violation and I was going to jail for about seven and a half years. The court recommended the sobriety program, but I was not willing to go and I even got more charges once I got here,” Langley said.

There was an additional relapse and Langley said she went to jail for three months.

“It was horrible. Jail is what forced me to be sober,” Langley admitted.

District Attorney Chad Pitre told those at the ceremony that the sobriety diversion program is a significant part of the state court system in St. Landry.

“It’s one of the best programs we have in the justice system because it works,” Pitre said.

Jason Meche, one of four state court judges who are responsible for the program, told the graduates their participation for the last two years wasn’t necessarily easy.

“I know this was a long road for a lot of you, but it’s so much better for you to do this as opposed to the threat of sending you to jail,” said Meche.