Katie Swiatocha remembers the fear more than anything. All she wanted was her son.
But instead of being with her child, the young mother found herself alone, frail from drug use and in the custody of U.S. marshals. She was charged with conspiracy to distribute narcotics.
A lot can change in a year, though. Swiatocha's life is evidence of that, she said.
The 25-year-old Beaufort woman recently received her GED and aspires to become a nurse.
On Friday, Swiatocha graduated from a federal drug court initiative known as the BRIDGE Program. Swiatocha credited it for her newfound success.
"I had no goals or wants or needs other than using and abusing," Swiatocha said of her life before BRIDGE. "I was on the streets on a regular basis, didn't have a job. I wasn't doing anything with myself. ... It's been a total turnaround."
The BRIDGE program was created three years ago, officials said. It serves as an alternative to incarceration for non-violent drug offenders who seek the court's help to overcome their addictions.
The program is a collaborative effort between South Carolina's U.S. District Court, the U.S. Probation Office, Federal Public Defender's Office and the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Participants are subject to rigorous drug testing, self-help sessions and financial training to prepare them for leading a prosperous life off drugs.
BRIDGE Program members, alumni, attorneys and area judges crowded a federal courtroom for Friday's graduation ceremony.
Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks presided over the event. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder served as the ceremony's keynote speaker.
"The path that brought you to this courtroom has been anything but easy," Holder told a group of about 20 active participants and alumni. "At base I'm proud of you."
Swiatocha was the day's sole graduate. Several other BRIDGE Program participants, however, achieved personal milestones on their journey toward recovery.
The ceremony came a day after the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to reduce federal sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug offenders.
Congress has six months to amend the policy before it goes into effect, but Holder has encouraged U.S. prosecutors not to wait to embrace the change.
U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said Holder's "Smart on Crime" initiative that was implemented last year has allowed local officials the leeway to create programs, such as drug court, that are catered for the needs of area residents.
Such programs are aimed at reducing crime and improving the quality of life for citizens, Nettles said.
"If you approach it as a shift in mind-set, then the nuts and bolts of the program fall naturally," Nettles said.
People who go through drug court programs are less likely to reoffend, Holder said, allowing offenders to receive the treatment they need and a new chance at life, instead of being lost in the criminal justice system.
"This is what this administration is dedicated to doing - to try to do new things, new creative things, evidence-based things," Holder said. "Not everything we try is going to be successful. Those things that are not successful we will not continue to fund, but we're willing to take some chances."
Holder said he was impressed by the effectiveness of the local BRIDGE Program.
"It's heartwarming to see people turning their lives around and doing it in such a way that we don't overburden our prison system," Holder said.
Holder also was in Charleston for a statue dedication in honor of the late Judge Waties Waring, known for taking a public stance against racial inequality and segregation during the Civil Rights Movement.
Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908 or at Twitter.com/celmorePC.
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