Stephen Pardue and Bryce Pennell looked up at the TV screen in Judge Dib Waldrip’s courtroom and saw the mug shots once part of their former lives.
“I knew then, with every fiber of my body, that I was going to die an alcoholic death,” Pardue said, recalling the demons that led him into Comal County’s Challenge Court program.
“Judge Waldrip put me in jail the last time because he knew I couldn’t stay sober … on May 9, 2017, I got down on my knees — before 24 not-so-friendly inmates — and asked God for help, and turned my life over to Him and turned my life around.”
Pardue and Pennell on Friday became the newest graduates of the program, which for 12 years has allowed those arrested for drug and alcohol-related felonies to get help, get sober and avoid serving jail time.
“I always ask our participants to bring a special person with them — to let them know the positive steps you’re taking and making on the walk to sobriety,” Waldrip, 433rd District Court justice, said before an audience of friends and family members of program participants.
“While today is a graduation, we ask others who are phasing up in the program to come forward and talk about how they’re doing.”
Challenge Court — also called “drug court” — allows defendants to enter treatment and rehabilitation programs and complete five program phases. Sandra Maggiani, program counselor, said there are 61 participants in varying stages in the program.
All waive their normal rights and submit to frequent visits by probation officers, drug and alcohol testing. Participants must set and follow personal goals, find jobs, change lifestyles, support others in the program and provide weekly progress updates.
Depending on the individual, the program takes between 2 and 3 years to finish — and graduates must continue to terms outlined as part of deferred adjudication or regular probation. Those falling short at any step along the way could face jail time.
“Even after they graduate we still like to make sure that the wings still work and everyone can still soar,” Waldrip said, then introducing nine graduates who updated him on their progress.
Former San Antonio Spurs star Bruce Bowen congratulated Challenge Court participants for taking steps “back to reality, which doesn’t stop, but keeps going,” and much more important when compared to his on-court wars against Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
“We’re human and we all make mistakes,” he said. “But there’s always a time for reflection, which all of you can utilize as motivation. It’s only through that reflection that we realize we can become better.
“I’m not here to say that I know what you’re going through but to applaud you for taking the next step forward. You’re saying ‘This is me, trying to get better through this program.’ It’s now about living a life you can be proud of.”
Pardue and Pennell, today looking much healthier than their booking shots, are on the road back — one as a computer engineer, the other as a college graduate headed to law school. It inspired others who are on the same journey.
“I’ve been sober for 19 months — and I can say it’s not been easy,” another program participant said. “It feels like yesterday, which is why I know I need to take it one day at a time.”