WOODLAND — Leandro Escarsega got hooked on drugs at the age of 13. He quit when he was 18, only to abuse alcohol as a substitute.
One drunken-driving arrest led to a second, then a third. By the time he got into it with a UC Davis police officer at The Graduate last year, he also had a felony warrant out for his arrest.
Escarsega was looking at state prison time when Yolo Superior Court officials accepted him into the felony probation drug court program. He showed up drunk for his first court hearing, earning himself three days in the county slammer.
“My second day in jail I realized all the pain I had caused,” said Escarsega, a 29-year-old Woodland resident. “I realized that it was time for a change.”
On Monday, Escarsega was one of six people to graduate from drug court, a program in which defendants convicted of nonviolent offenses receive intensive treatment for their addictions — ones that often served as the basis for their crimes.
Joining him were Joseph Armstrong, Alberto Arroyo, Steve Botello, Raul Corrales and Janaya Helm.
“You are here today because you have shown us something. We believe you have potential,” said Judge David Reed, who has presided over the program for the past two years. “You are here because you have translated potential into change.”
By completing the program — kicking their addictions, gaining employment and repairing fractured relationships in the process — the six graduates have saved taxpayers an estimated $810,000, the amount it would have cost to house them in state prison for the 18 years they collectively faced.
“It gives people their lives back,” Deputy Public Defender Bret Bandley said of drug court, which got its start in Yolo County in 1999. “It provides hope when sometimes hope is gone.”
After receiving their certificates, the six graduates each rose to address the standing-room-only audience, thanking the relatives, friends, treatment providers and fellow drug-court participants who backed them on the long road to sobriety.
Many of the graduates also credited Florence Gainor, Yolo’s longtime drug-court coordinator — affectionately known as “the whip” behind the program — who retired Oct. 1 after 11 1/2 years on the job. The program is now headed by Leanna Libolt, a county probation officer.
“I can hear your voice in everything I do, and it’s an honor,” Helm told Gainor. “I’ve grown up in this program. I’ve got real, true friends, and that’s something never had before.”
Gainor estimates she’s seen 100 people graduate from drug court since the program got its start.
“It’s hard to let go of them. I feel like they’re my kids,” Gainor said in between hugs from current and past graduates. “It’s a real big deal that people are willing to put effort into changing people’s lives instead of sending them to prison. We’re fortunate the courts have supported it.”
Escarsega said he plans to make the most of his new life, spending more time with his young daughter and the other family members he once pushed away. He also has new motto: What can I do for you, instead of for myself?
“I’ve become the father that I was meant to be,” he said. “I’m going to try to become a better role model instead of the criminal I once was.”
— Reach Lauren Keene at [email protected] or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter @laurenkeene