BY SCOTT REESE WILLEY
Jonathan Caceres remembers the night he was arrested for possession of marijuana.
He spent the remainder of Feb. 13 — and Valentine’s Day — in a cell at the Fort Bend County jail waiting for his mom to post bail.
She had some choice words for him, he recalled.
The seemingly minor offense cost him a lot: his job, his girl and the respect of his family.
Still, Caceres refused to believe he was to blame for the unfortunate turn of events.
“I was dumb and ignorant,” he recalled. “I kept telling myself I didn’t deserve this.”
Fortunately, Caseres was given the opportunity to get his life back in order.
He joined other young people in a one-of-a-kind misdemeanor drug court program offered through County Court At-Law No. 5.
On Monday, he and five other individuals between the ages of 17-25 earned their certificates of completion in a joyful but often tearful ceremony in Judge Teana Watson’s courtroom at the Fort Bend County Justice Center.
It was the 44th such commencement ceremony.
Watson also provided the graduates with documents showing their criminal charges had been dismissed and their criminal records expunged.
She even offered them each a $10 gift certificate to Chik-Fil-A and a card signed by all the adults working in the program.
Some of the graduates spent up to 18 months to two years “coming to court, going to meetings, going to group (counseling), getting (drug tested), having to report, having to do community service, sometimes sanctioned — going back and forth to jail,” she noted. “But you’ve done it. You’ve graduated.”
The graduates were given a minute or two to address other young people in the audience, all of whom were in court that day because they had been arrested for possessing illegal drugs.
Caceres encouraged them to consider applying for the program.
“I cannot express how much I appreciate this program,” he said, choking back sobs and wiping tears from his eyes.
“I’ve been given a second chance at life.”
It came with a lot of hard work, he added.
Caseres spent nine hours a week for two years going to group counseling, taking drug tests, performing community service, all while keeping records of his progress.
“Honestly, I really thought I might not make it through,” he told the audience.
But the alternative was to go back to jail, and have a criminal record to deal with the rest of his life.
So Caseres, and the others in the program, soldiered on.
Now, two years later, he said he was grateful for getting arrested “because I’m afraid to think of what would have become of me if I had continued to do the things I had been doing.”
Fellow graduate Carina Hernandez said she also appreciates the opportunity to get her life back on track.
She admitted she didn’t take the program seriously at the beginning.
“Before I got into this program, my life was a wreck,” she recalled. “Even after getting into the program I continued to lie and smoke (marijuana).”
But when she tested positive for marijuana use, she was sent back to jail temporarily.
That woke her up to the reality that she could spend months away from her children.
So she pledged to follow the program rigorously and put her sordid past behind her.
“I did this for my little ones because they need their mom at home,” she told those in the courtroom. “They already have one parent in prison. If it wasn’t for my children, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Graduate Douglas Sales encouraged others fighting personal demons to join the program and lean on the advisers for help.
Antonio Ramos, who arrested for possession of illegal pills, said the program made him a better person.
“It took a lot of sanctions to get me to understand that the path I was heading to wasn’t the right one,” said Ramos, now 24.
“I was used to being a rebellious, anti-authority individual always trying to get things done my way.”
By completing the program, Kamrin Costly had four misdemeanor drug charges dismissed and expunged from his record.
The program helped him get off drugs and find hobbies and other activities to keep him occupied, he said.
The program is offered through a joint-agreement with the Fort Bend County District Attorney’s Office, probation departments and area companies that specialize in drug rehabilitation.