DAWSONVILLE— At the end of the emotional ceremony, Judge Jason Deal asked Gordon "G.P." Pirkle Jr. to smile to the packed assembly hall.
Pirkle, his cheeks streaked with tears, cracked a broad grin. In his hand was a plaque commemorating his special day: graduation from Dawson County's Treatment Court. In his mouth were his new teeth, courtesy of a nonprofit that helps participants pay for dental work to replace methamphetamine-mouth decay.
Pirkle, dressed in his Sunday best, looked nothing like the man who once had served federal time for drugs and who had been arrested again in November 2009 for methamphetamine possession. Back then, Pirkle had only 13 teeth left, and the decay was so bad he resorted to applying Super Glue to his bottom front teeth to keep them from falling out.
"Now G.P.'s got a great smile and he can show it," said Deal, the governor's son, who oversees Dawson and Hall counties' drug court programs. "And he's shown it's never too late."
In March, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution profiled three drug court graduates as well as Pirkle, who was more than halfway through Dawson's program.
The series highlighted Gov. Nathan Deal's push to provide more funding for so-called "accountability courts," intensive programs that require defendants to work, stay sober and get treatment. The courts are one facet of Georgia's criminal justice reform initiative that seeks to divert nonviolent offenders to treatment so expensive prison beds can be reserved for the most dangerous criminals.
Two years ago, Pirkle faced a nine-month stint in a residential substance abuse treatment center for state prisoners. Instead, he volunteered for the arduous two-year commitment in Dawson's treatment court.
Pirkle said he felt he needed the more lengthy drug court program for its structure and accountability. Judge Deal said he had his doubts, but Pirkle was insistent and was accepted into the program.
"It saved my life," Pirkle said Thursday.
A number of friends and relatives followed Pirkle to the podium to express their love, support and congratulations. Pirkle's father, Gordon Pirkle Sr., who runs the legendary Pool Room restaurant a block from the courthouse, instead stood and, choking back tears, told his son, "I love you."
In all, eight people graduated Thursday from the Dawson program — four from the DUI court and four, including Pirkle, from drug court.
The court's coordinator, Bob King, opened the ceremony by saying the event was not a true graduation. "It's really the start of a new way of life," he said.
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