'Drive-In' Production a Marquee Event for Drug Court
By Csaba Sukosd | September 4, 2020
COVID-19 hasn't stopped Ohio's specialized dockets from celebrating successes. In northeast Ohio, one program went with an old form of entertainment to resolve a modern dilemma.
The Ashtabula County Drug Court's latest commencement was a "drive-in" ceremony. Like an outdoor cinema, graduates and attendees watched the show from their vehicles - or lawn chairs - in a large parking lot.
"We could be physically together but still recognize the social distancing provisions of the department of health," said common pleas court Judge Gary Yost.
The venue was Jefferson United Methodist Church, two blocks from the county courthouse in Jefferson.
It was the specialty court's second graduation event during the pandemic. The first, held at the courthouse in March, was limited to graduates and family members. Sensing the void of other program participants who traditionally had attended commencements, Judge Yost and his staff sought a more spacious alternative.
Fortunately, he knew about the church that began conducting services in an unconventional manor.
"They have a sound system that would actually broadcast on an FM frequency, where you could turn on your radio in your car, and listen to everything," Judge Yost said.
One by one, the eight graduates made their way to a makeshift stage. For those on site, Judge Yost detailed the charges that led them to the program, then listed several accomplishments as part of a rehabilitative process that lasted anywhere from 17 months to nearly three years.
"Before I started drug court my life was a mess. If I hadn't started this program I'd be back in prison or dead," said graduate Andrew Ogelsby.
For those who couldn't attend in person, the event was shown by videoconference. Viewers saw the most visible signs of each individual's transformation - from their mug shots to their graduation photos.
"It's not about drug court making me do the things they made me do. It was the willingness and the want for me to change those things in my life: to be a better mother, to be a better woman, and to be a great example to those who've struggled with the same issues," graduate Shante Jones said.
"To get as far as they have in terms of their sobriety, is really fantastic to see," added county Prosecutor Cecillia Cooper.
For Judge Yost, who's retiring at the end of the year, it's a unique way to cap nearly four decades on the bench.
As part of the commemoration, National Association of Drug Court Professionals CEO Carson Fox recorded a message, commending the judge of 38 years on the bench and his specialized docket.
At the end of the ceremony, the jurist's staff surprised him with a video montage from peers and former drug court participants sharing their appreciation for all of his service to the community.
As touching as the unexpected gesture was to him, Judge Yost's most memorable part of the proceedings was being able to reunite an entire drug court class one final time.
"Given what we were facing and the challenges of dealing with the pandemic, it kind of makes me personally feel that I was able to leave on as high a note as we could get by having this opportunity," Judge Yost said.