Judge shares personal stories behind Drug Court

Published: Nov. 27, 2015 at 2:27 AM CST|Updated: Nov. 27, 2015 at 10:55 AM CST
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - As you spend time with your family this holiday, we want you to make smart choices.

When it comes to drunk drivers, history shows that most of them drive drunk 80 times before they are caught or kill someone.

One of the great success stories in the fight against those repeat offenses can be found inside the heart, mind, and courtroom of Judge Tim Dwyer.

The General Sessions Court judge oversees the largest Drug Court in Tennessee from his courtroom in the Criminal Justice Center at 201 Poplar.

Judge Dwyer says accountability is the secret to the Drug Court's success. Offenders call in every day and go see the judge more often than most people visit their mother.

Change has come for Patricia, who got two DUIs within one year.

"Are you anything like that person in the mug shot now?" WMC Action News 5's Joe Birch asked her.

"I'm nothing like that person," she replied. "Then, I was drunk. I was down. I didn't know what to do about it. I knew I needed help, I just didn't know about how to go about doing it."

Patricia found herself before Judge Tim Dwyer's Drug Court, which targets non-violent adult drug and DUI offenders.

"If you go into my program, if you get another one, you're through," Judge Dwyer said. "But we're here to try to help you. Fortunately, the program has been very successful."

When repeat DUI offenders appear, Judge Dwyer shows them a photograph of himself in younger days with his cousin, Thomas.

"That little boy on my lap, he's not here anymore. I tell them the story about how he was killed by a drunk driver."

Teenagers Parker Page, Wayne Somogyi and Judge Tim Dwyer's cousin, Thomas, were riding bikes in Germantown on June 9, 1993.

All three boys and a drunk driver, 24-year-old Larry Nelson, were killed in a crash on Dogwood Road.

Houston High School classmates expressed grief with chalk and markers.

"No one will ever forget them," Dwyer said. "I mean, 30 years from now, people will still remember this."

22 years later, Judge Dwyer keeps the trio's memory fresh with each repeat DUI offender.

"I did a lot of soul searching after this happened to Thomas. I saw the effects it had on my aunt and uncle, the whole family. I could've took the other turn and wanted to throw the book at everybody and lock everybody up and throw away the key. You know, I had a lot of thoughts running through my head. I was pretty angry about it, but I'm convinced this is the way to proceed," he added.

Here's how Drug Court works:

Offenders agree to an intensive 12-month-long treatment program, daily call-ins for random drug screening, outpatient treatment, 12-step meetings, counseling sessions, and very regular visits with the judge himself.

"They come back every week to see me. I've got my thumb on them that they're staying with it and being sincere and serious about the recovery program."

"When I started going to court, it seemed like I seen a light come. I met Judge Dwyer and he gave me the ultimatum, I can do it. I accept it," Patricia explained.

More than 2,200 people have graduated --- a dozen at a time --- at monthly celebrations at 201 Poplar.

"We couldn't do this program without the great treatment providers we have," said Drug Court Coordinator Angela Parkerson.

Most graduates stay clean.

Among the 155 people who graduated from Dwyer's DUI treatment over 18 years, only 20 have been re-arrested for DUI.

"Which is a recidivism rate of a little over 13 percent, so dealing with a high risk group like that, I'm proud of that," Dwyer said.

Judge Dwyer levies fines, which pay the salaries of most of his team of Drug Court counselors who act like probation officers for the 300 people currently under the judge's thumb.

There is also a non-profit called Shelby County Drug Court Foundation, which helps fund staffing, treatment, and halfway houses.

Patricia was named outstanding graduate of her class.

"Being sober is the greatest thing I ever wanted to be. I'm loving it," she said.

Copyright 2015 WMC Action News 5. All rights reserved.