It gave way like a bad knee.
As Amy Jones jogged off the soccer field of her final college game last year, she broke with a Spartan way of life. The runs and weightlifting, the soccer drills and hard-earned rivulets of sweat.
Soon, her hours were filled with bottled beer, smoldering joints and morals that stretched like a rubber band in a rented downtown house where drugs were dealt.
As the police rammed down the door and her face was pushed against the cool wooden planks of the living-room floor, she knew the party was over.
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At 19, with three felony drug charges dangling over her head, her life got a new focus: Richland County's Drug Court.
South Carolina's drug courts have proven successful in transforming lives like Jones', state Attorney General Henry McMaster contends. He wants to create a new statewide alternative court based on Drug Court.
The idea is to divert nonviolent, first-time offenders such as Jones into treatment programs and away from prisons. The result, according to McMaster, would be more room in prisons for violent offenders, savings for taxpayers and rehabilitation for nonviolent offenders.
McMaster also wants to abolish parole.
Second chance drug court
Jones is now 20 years old. She is participating in this story on the condition that her real name is withheld and she has pinned her hopes on Drug Court.
"Giving anybody a second chance who's made mistakes in their lives is a good idea," said Jones, who is attending a local college. "(Drug court officials) are very specific in what they want you to do and how to do it. They demand accountability."
Her treatment includes weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, group therapy, drug tests and monthly court appearances before Judge Walter Todd.
On a recent Wednesday, she stood with her hands behind her back, facing the bench, slightly bouncing nervously on her toes.
A Drug Court counselor detailed her negative drug tests and her steady attendance at therapy sessions. She is progressing and slated to graduate from Drug Court in May, the counselor said.
"Your reports are very good," nods Todd, looking like a knowing father. "You keep it up."
In May, she hopes to stand eye-to-eye with Todd, shake his hand and receive a navy blue certificate.
For many Drug Court graduates, it's the only diploma they have ever received.
"Don't lose sight of this," Todd says to three graduates on a recent Wednesday night as he hands them their certificates. "Remember this. Let it guide you in whatever you do in the future."
More than 30 people on the wooden benches gave a standing ovation to the graduates.
In the audience, a mother, sister, niece and best friend applaud and grin. They've driven from Augusta, Ga., to see Doug Pyke, 33, graduate.
Two years ago, a battery of tests finally revealed the cause of the tingling in Pyke's legs. (He allowed the use of his real name in this story.)
Cancer, the doctor said. Chances were he would be dead before the year was out.
Pyke threw out his road map for a normal life. If he was to die young, he'd do it on his own terms.
Freed from the chains of day-to-day responsibilities, Pyke salved his wounds in a mix of drugs, liking each one a little more than the last. He liked crystal meth the best.
Jacked up on it, Superman energy surged through his veins. In a manic state, Pyke worked a day job, lay tile on the side and still found the vigor to dance all night.
On a Florida vacation, he stayed up for nine days, substituting sleep for smoky clubs, sunbathing and hallucinations that crept into the corners of his eyes.
The reckless use eventually led to selling crystal meth. Inevitably, the police busted him, finding a stash in his coat pocket.
"Everything happens for a reason, and I'm glad I was caught," said Pyke, who spent 10 months in the Drug Court program and just graduated.
"It's a good program, but only if you're willing to change your life around," Pyke says. "To me, it was a way of changing the way I thought, the way I acted, my friends. I changed all of my friends. If you're not willing to do that, then Drug Court won't work."
Pyke took the challenge seriously, moving from Aiken to start over in Columbia.
He has outlived his year-to-live diagnosis thanks to a risky surgery, and weekly chemotherapy is helping him, too. Now, hope is growing faster than the cancer.
Tougher than prison
Ask any Drug Court graduate, and they'll tell you the program is harder than prison time.
The drug tests come unexpectedly. Priority must be given to not only staying clean of drugs, but to attending and documenting counseling sessions. All participants must be employed.
And it requires cash. Some have shelled out more than $2,000 to participate. Most participants graduate. The Richland County program's recidivism rates hold constant at 11 to 12 percent.
That compares with a nearly 33 percent three-year recidivism rate for those incarcerated in S.C. prisons.
For those who miss meetings without an acceptable excuse, Todd assigns community service or a day or two in prison.
If they fail the program, there is no returning. But if they stick with it, their criminal records are cleared. More importantly, they receive the skills to be productive in life.
Jones turns 21 next month, but she won't celebrate at the bars.
"That's not for me anymore," she says as she heads down the steps of the Richland County Courthouse. "I'm done with it."