JASPER, AL (WBRC) - Ray Kennedy, 51, stood before a crowd of supporters inside Hope House Church in Jasper. His hands shook and he stopped several times to wipe tears from his eyes, but Kennedy was happy.
"This is the first task in 25 years besides the military that I have accomplished," Kennedy told the packed room, gathered to celebrate the nine people graduating from Walker County's Veterans and Drug Court programs.
"I worked hard for this day and I used to think I wouldn't live to see this day, but I'm so glad I'm here," Kennedy said.
Kennedy and the other eight graduates were able to avoid prison by completing 18 months of intense supervision, including mandatory counseling and self-help groups, weekly meetings with Judge Henry Allred and the Drug/Veterans Court team, plus several random drug tests a week. Participants are also required to work, do community service, and adhere to a curfew. That level of accountability can be a tall order for someone battling addiction. Walker County's Director of Community Corrections Steven Shaver said 38% of participants either drop out or fail to meet the strict demands of these programs. If this happens, they go to prison.
"This is more demanding and more justice for the public than if the defendant goes to prison," Shaver explained.
This program represents a shift in crime prevention away from simple punishment with more opportunities to hold defendants accountable for their behavior and choices.
"You can't lock someone up and forget about them," Shaver said. "You've actually got to help them, we've got to give them that incentive, that motivation."
For those who graduate, like Kennedy, the achievement can represent a new, clean and crime-free chapter of life that jail or prison would not help facilitate. Approximately 35% of those who leave Alabama prisons will commit new crimes, according to Alabama's Board of Pardons and Paroles. The number of Drug/Veterans court graduates that re-offend is only 15%, according to Shaver.
Kennedy said after spending more than 560 days in county jails during his adult life, the skills he learned in Veterans Court finally allowed him to change his lifestyle.
"It's been the turning point in my life," he said. "It saved my life and it's given me reason to live again."
Ray Kennedy's path to addiction was early and swift in his life. He grew up in the small town of Oakman and after his father died of a brain aneurysm, he began drinking alcohol at age eight, smoking marijuana at nine and by age 10, he was selling pot to neighborhood children in order to afford lunch at school.
After high school Kennedy enlisted in the Army and was assigned to a field artillery unit at Fort Hood, Texas. He was hoping to clean up his life, but continued to drink, smoke pot and take acid.
"They had drug tests, but we knew how to beat the system," Kennedy said. "Addicts are good at beating the system."
Kennedy returned from basic training wanting a successful life, but the next three decades were a roller coaster of ups and downs with his drug addiction running as a constant theme. By age 27, he had three children and was on his second marriage. A friend introduced him to methamphetamine, which became the devil on his shoulder. He had a fourth child, saw his mother die of breast cancer, was arrested and spent 11 months in jail. He began trading drugs for sex and his marriage of 20 years ended. At this point, Kennedy was cooking his own supply of meth. In 2014, his oldest son was killed in a car accident. Kennedy found himself in jail again and was exhausted from the pain. He was desperate to end the cycle of getting clean for a while, but always falling back into addiction.
"I didn't understand what was going on, but now I do," Kennedy said.
The therapy and tools Kennedy gained from Veterans Court have given him clarity on his addiction and confidence that he can get through each day without using drugs.
"You take it day by day," Kennedy said. "I have never been this happy in my life and that's the truth."
Drug and Veterans Courts are an option for some people facing criminal charges.
Participants in Walker County's programs can either apply to get in, or be ordered by a judge. The applications are vetted by the drug court team, the district attorney and must receive a judge's approval.
Raymond Kennedy applied to Veterans Court, but the district attorney rejected him due to his prior criminal record. Later, a judge ordered him into the program and Kennedy was grateful for the opportunity.
Veterans court coordinator Ernest Inman said Kennedy was a great candidate, even though his lengthy rap sheet initially spooked the district attorney.
"If you're looking at certain backgrounds, you may think a candidate is a lost cause," Inman explained. "Given the opportunity, like Ray had, at least they can get that chance to come into the program and change their life and a lot of them will succeed," Inman said.
The team approach of Veterans Court is important. Most of the officers in Veterans Court, including Inman, are also veterans. Volunteers through the American Legion help mentor those going through the program and the camaraderie built is similar to that in the military. Kennedy said he grew close to the other participants and would meet up with them before court for encouragement.
"It's like a band of brothers," Kennedy explained. "I've grown to love these people. Whenever somebody messes up in the program, it hurts us all."
There are currently 23 Veterans Courts operating across Alabama, according to Alabama's Administrative Office of Courts. The most recent was launched this June in Etowah County. The state's first Veterans Court began in Shelby County in 2012.
In Walker County, Drug and Veterans Courts are part of Community Corrections, a non-profit under contract with Alabama's Department of Corrections. Shaver explained that their programs receive no state or local funding, instead they rely on weekly fees paid by the defendants and combining monies from other programs to make ends meet.
He said Alabama's recent sentencing reform has allowed many defendants to choose the easy way out, opting for probation instead of more rigorous programs like Veterans Court. In 2015, Alabama passed new sentencing guidelines that created a class D felony, allowing offenders charged with minor drug possession to avoid prison or jail time.
Shaver argued this does little to correct the root problems of crime like addiction.
"People that have a history of misdemeanor arrests involving drugs, the courts should require them to get help," Shaver said. "A lot of people aren't going to get help unless we force it upon them."
A veteran himself with a 47-year law enforcement career, Shaver said he'd like to see more support for community corrections from the community.
"I'd like people to know we're here and what we actually do," Shaver said.
"People don't realize that we're protecting the public. These programs hold people accountable and help keep the community safer," he said.