‘Breaking chains:’ 6 people graduate from Big Island Drug Court
In a place that usually holds criminal hearings and delivers justice, the 3rd Circuit Courtroom in Kona on Monday was alive with claps, cheers and whistles of congratulations for six people wearing lei. They were the latest graduates of Big Island Drug Court.
Families celebrated sobriety, and the 21st anniversary of the program that has helped more than 350 people get their lives back on track in Hawaiʻi County.
“For some of you, the journey has been relatively uneventful and straightforward. Others, at times, have chosen their own adventure but you all sit here today and that’s really all that matters,” Drug Court Judge Wendy DeWeese said. “After today, you will continue to have your own journey and you’ll continue to go on and choose your own adventures.
“Today, I’m wishing you a future journey, and a future adventure that is full of good health, success, happiness, and oh yes, sobriety.”
Established in 2002, the special court program addresses community problems related to substance abuse by providing treatment for youth and adults facing drug-related charges instead of putting them in jail.
Itʻs been successful, with about 90 percent of graduates, who were tracked for three years after completing the program, not being convicted of new felonies, according to the Drug Court’s website.
The graduates on Monday are: Renee Butori, Jonah Farmer, Akuni Ishii, Michael Johnson and cousins Chaniece Estoy-Keka and Jamison Keka.
Chaniece Estoy-Keka, who completed the program in 1 year and 8 months, was joined by three of her sisters in the courtroom and one who watched the event virtually. Her eldest sister, Christine Roney, said her sister’s journey to sobriety was a long time coming, and the transformation has been amazing.
Roney said it used to be: “Oh no, she’s coming! Turn the lights off!”
Now, her sister is invited to family gatherings at their homes or at the beach. “We get a sister, a mom and an aunty back,” Roney said.
Estoy-Keka, who used methamphetamine for over a decade, has been clean for more than a year. She is now employed, has her own apartment, and is pursuing her GED.
“I just want to thank my family for supporting me and I’m gonna do good now,” she told the crowd.
Jamison Keka started using methamphetamine when he was 13. He completed Drug Court in a little more than 3 years.
“I want to thank my family and friends that kept me accountable for my actions,” Keka said. “There’s nothing better in this world than to have family that supports you, no matter what you do.”
Roney, who also has battled addiction and served time in jail but has been sober for a long time, spoke again saying the Keka family is large, and it’s only by the grace of God that she is standing in front of them today.
“It’s important to remember our past; not to be defined by it, but to use it as a stepping stone to become something bigger in our future,” Roney said.
For so long, Roney said, the Keka family has always been shamed as many of them have been arrested and had their names printed in West Hawaiʻi Today’s weekly arrest logs.
“We’re no longer hindered by a generation of curses and addiction,” Roney said. “We get to break chains today.”
Drug court is a national proven program. Each participant is assigned a probation officer, who functions like a case manager, coordinating care, helping access benefits and services, and providing intensive supervision. Frequent court appearances and random and mandatory drug testing, combined with prompt sanctions and incentives, encourage compliance and completion.
Because the complexity of crime and drugs requires a multidisciplinary approach, the Big Island Drug Court relies upon collaboration among key parties in the criminal justice system, including the judicial system, law enforcement, substance abuse treatment agencies, health care providers, social services, mental health interests and the public.
Every Drug Court program is defined by 10 key components set by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
On Monday, family and supporters of the other four graduates also took a moment to thank the Drug Court team for helping their loved ones through addiction.
Probation officer Emily Ovian-Kwiat said Renee Butori rose to the occasion after some initial struggles in the program “and did a complete 180.”
In Drug Court for just under two years, Butori publically thanked her mother and the Drug Court team for keeping her accountable.
“I feel like I was reborn again, and I’m grateful for not becoming another statistic,” Butori said.
Akuni Ishii, who spent much of his adult life living in the bushes, joined the program in 2020. Probation officer Rodney Branco said he weathered all the obstacles in his path and has never had a positive drug test while in Drug Court.
Branco also commended Ishii on “driving legally after 10-plus years,” receiving his driver’s license only a few days earlier.
Ishii is now employed at Willie’s Hot Chicken in Kona and has a place to live.
“This program is a blessing for anyone who has problems with drugs,” Ishii said.
Jonah Farmer joined the program in 2021. He never had a positive test during his time in Drug Court. He now works at Papa Kona on Ali‘i Drive and has a place to live.
“I want to thank everyone who helped me along the way,” Farmer said.
DeWeese described Farmer as determined and “took care of business.”
Michael Johnson has been in Drug Court for 3 years. Ovian-Kwiat said it was tough for Johnson initially as he kept surrounding himself with the same group of friends that would drag him down.
“He was no stranger to the ankle monitor,” the probation officer said.
Like the rest of his fellow graduates, Johnson is employed, has a place to live and has mended relationships with family. The Drug Court team described Johnson as a jovial person and he will be missed.
“Your perseverance gets an A-plus. Congratulations, you made it!” DeWeese said.
Johnson said he never thought he’d graduate from the program.
“It’s a long-time journey,” he said. I thought I’d end up going to prison,” Johnson said. “I had a tough addiction.”
Johnson gave some advice to Drug Court clients: “Follow the rules and don’t lie.”
For DeWeese, this group of graduates was the first she oversaw from start to finish in the program since she started as the Big Island Drug Court judge in July 2020. “For me, this was a meaningful graduation,” she said.
DeWeese was happy for the men and women who completed the program. “They accomplished their dream,” she said.
“I hope they stay involved and help others…because addiction is a lifelong disease and I think the community shares some responsibility now too to ensure the supports are there to continue on the path they’re on,” DeWeese said. “Their needs don’t end today.”