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Drug Court Rebuilds Lives

Maui/Moloka‘i Drug Court holds graduation ceremony, honoring graduates of intensive, life-changing drug and alcohol treatment program. “This was my only chance to live life sober.”

August 20, 2009
Sarah Ruppenthal
At first glance, it may have looked like a typical trial-by-jury scene in Courtroom 2 of the Maui County Courthouse on Thursday, July 23. With a rap of his gavel, the presiding judge, in his traditional black robe, called court to session as the prosecuting attorney and public defender prepared for the day’s proceedings.

But on this particular afternoon, the judicial proceedings were cause for celebration, as one by one, 11 men adorned in garlands of fragrant lei stood before Second Circuit Court Judge Shackley F. Raffetto, who pronounced the charges filed against them had been dropped.

While each had once appeared before a judge—perhaps in the very same courtroom—as a criminal defendant, they were honored that afternoon as members of the 27th graduating class of the Maui/Moloka‘i Drug Court Program (MDCP). MDCP is an intensive, 40- to 60-week treatment program for non-violent, Class “B” or “C” felony offenders whose criminal actions resulted from their alcohol and/or drug abuse. And for those who witnessed the beaming smiles that illuminated Courtroom 2 that day, it is safe to say that the program is making a profound impact.

Judge Raffetto created MDCP in August 2000 to combat Maui County’s growing drug epidemic and help substance-abusing offenders break the cycle of addiction. Nine years later, 320 graduates have successfully completed the program, with an 85 percent success (no reoffend) rate. MDCP is comprised of a dedicated coalition of judges, attorneys, law enforcement officials, contracted physicians and treatment providers, Maui County Correctional Center (MCCC) staff, state Department of Public Safety personnel and MDCP staff members. Once admitted, participants receive alcohol and drug treatment integrated with justice system case processing, which includes rehabilitation services, close court supervision, case management, anger management, and educational and vocational training. In addition, MDCP clients are required to participate in individual counseling, group and family support sessions, submit to regular drug and alcohol testing and participate in community service projects before they are eligible to graduate. While the rules of MDCP are simple—stay clean, complete the program and accept your diploma—the outcome is often nothing short of extraordinary.

The motto of MDCP is “Ho‘omaka Ola Hou,” or “rebuilding lives,” and the July 25 ceremony was certainly a testament to this maxim, as the 11 graduates accepted their diplomas—and a new lease on life—with a palpable sense of pride. As friends and family members looked on, each graduate stepped forward to accept his diploma, shaking the hands of Judge Raffetto, Judge Joseph Cardoza and MDCP Administrator Barbara Ann Keller. In a courtroom overflowing with flowers, smiles and tears of joy, the 11 men took a moment to express their gratitude to Judge Raffetto, Aloha House staff and MDCP case workers and administrators.

“Without this program, I wouldn’t be alive today,” said one man, blinking back tears. “This program guided me in the right direction, and with the knowledge I gained, I know I will be able to succeed.”

“I was afraid of judges before,” said another graduate, eliciting a peal of laughter. “But now I respect them.”

Gazing out at his family seated in the gallery, one man admitted, “I’m so glad I got arrested. It was a long journey [but] I couldn’t have stayed clean or become a responsible parent without Maui Drug Court.”

According to the National Drug Court Institute (NDCI), there are 2,301 criminal drug courts currently “in session” across the country, and multiple studies have concluded that these specialized models are both efficient and cost-effective. The NDCI defines the drug court concept as a system which “provides alternatives to the prosecution and incarceration of offenders with substance abuse problems… drug courts help rebuild lives, support families and reduce recidivism and costs of incarceration.”

And the program isn’t easy. At Thursday’s ceremony, many of the graduates admitted the MDCP was much harder than they expected.

“Drug court kicked my butt. It was hard,” said one graduate. “But this was my only chance to live life sober. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it was definitely the best thing.”

Another graduate agreed, “It was definitely tough, but it saved my life.” Describing the “hell” of his years of drug addiction, he said, “I didn’t know if I could do it. But I did, and 13 months later, I went from being a junkie to a 4.0 student.”

With a soft smile, one man thanked the judge “for having faith in me.” MDCP not only offered a second chance, he said, “It also let me be the person I always wanted to be… and truly appreciate the gift of life.”

Looking out at the 11 graduates seated in the jury box, Judge Raffetto said, “If you could have done this yourself, you wouldn’t be here today. Now you have all you need to go on and have good lives... I know you can do it, but it’s up to you to succeed.”

For more information, visit the Friends of the Maui Drug Court Website at, call (808) 442-3850 or visit the NDCI Website at

Article Photos

(Left to right) Judge Shackley Raffetto, Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona, Judge Joseph Cardoza, Judge Richard Bissen and George Kaya, the governor’s liaison for the Island of Maui, pose for a photo at April’s Maui Drug Court graduation.



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