Ted Streuli

All rose as the judge entered, 100 or so supporters, graduates, partners, and participants filling two-thirds of the auditorium at the Oklahoma City-County Health Department’s headquarters. It is not common for a judge to turn the health department’s auditorium into a makeshift courtroom, but this was a special occasion. Judge Ken Stoner was to preside over the first publicly held drug court graduation ceremony.

Stoner wore his simple black robe, more fittingly for this occasion referred to as a vestment. Old French took “robe” from the Frankish word “rouba,’ defined as spoils, things stolen, clothes. The derivation is the same for “rob.” To say that Judge Stoner was wearing a robe, then, is to suggest he took something and that would be misleading because he’s done just the opposite: he’s given something to every person in the room. He has given them a chance. And those in this room have used it to give themselves freedom: freedom from incarceration, freedom from addiction, and the freedom to discover who they can be.

That’s why vestment is a better word. A vestment is an official robe or gown worn by officiants and assistants during certain services and rites. It comes from the same root as “vest,” both the noun, a waistcoat, and the verb, which means to put something in possession of a person. The Medieval Latin form was “vestire,” meaning to put into possession, to invest.

Stoner has invested heavily in the participants, as has the district attorney, the public defender, the service providers that work with the court, and most importantly, the graduates have invested in themselves. They’ve attended all the meetings, all the therapy sessions, all the urine analysis appointments, and the court dates. They’ve worked to pay their fees and costs and they’ve worked to resist the addictive pull and remained sober for 450, 500, 550 days. For a year and a half, maybe two years, in some cases a little longer, they have worked on themselves.

“It took me 53 years,” said new graduate Sonya Hall, “but I am finally an adult.”

That’s appropriate too because a graduation ceremony is also called a commencement. The participants graduate — they step up from one thing to the next — but as “commencement” suggests, this graduation is a beginning.

One by one, Assistant District Attorney Kelly Basey asks Judge Stoner to dismiss the cases that brought each participant to the start of this journey. This is a graduation, but it’s court too. Assistant Public Defender Madison Mélon-McLawhorn hands each graduate a framed certificate, a copy of their mugshot — the before picture — and a coin inscribed with, “I came with hope, worked and learned. I have a new life, a life that I’ve earned.”

With that, the legal problems are over. It’s the day to commence a new life, one informed by the past but with a clear path unburdened by the clouds of addiction.

In just 22 months there have been 276 Oklahoma County drug court graduates. Collectively that has saved the state 1,932 years of prison time at a taxpayer cost of $36.7 million.

When we talk about criminal justice reform we talk about crowded, underfunded prisons and failing county jails. This graduation can remind us that real reform, the reforming of the system that will work, means giving people with an addiction a chance to overcome come it.

That investment comes with a much, much higher return and people who are much more vested in their own futures.


© 2019 Ted Streuli

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