LARGO — The judge didn't wear her robe. She stood in front of her crowded courtroom in a sleeveless black dress and stilettos, telling 100 drug addicts how much she admired their hard work.
"Welcome to your graduation!" said Judge Dee Anna Farnell, who oversees Pinellas County's drug court. "No one has any new violations, right?" No! shouted the people. "Well as soon as you walk out that door today," the judge said, "your charges will be dropped."
Then she told them about a special guest who would be speaking to them. "He's a five-time Grammy Award winner," she said. "He has been in your shoes."
While the graduates filled out paperwork, the judge brought in a tall, balding man in a blue button-up shirt. She pointed to the bragging board: photos of more than a dozen drug-free babies born to women who had come through her court.
"Okay," she said, turning back to the crowd. "How many of you are still going to 12-step programs? Raise your hand."
The tall man stepped beside her. He shot his right hand into the air and smiled.
"Congratulations. I'm in the same boat as you," said James Taylor.
Just then, a thin woman with disco ball earrings walked in. Taylor — Mr. Fire and Rain, Mr. Sweet Baby James — strode to her, calling, "Hi, Sweetie!" He wrapped both arms around her.
"Thank you," whispered the woman, who was weeping. "Thank you for taking such good care of me."
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Pinellas County has had a drug court for a decade. Farnell has been its judge for five years. About 1,200 people come before her every year.
If you have been charged with drug possession, if you're not a sex offender and you have never been convicted of a violent act, you can serve a sentence in rehab instead of jail.
And if you finish treatment, pay off your fines and pass all your drug tests, you get a graduation certificate. And you don't get a felony conviction. Your record will say, "Adjudication withheld."
Wednesday was graduation day.
Farnell estimates drug court saves taxpayers an average of $4 million a year in incarceration costs. An average of 13 percent of her defendants get rearrested after three years. For those who don't do drug court, 32 percent get rearrested.
Defendants come to court monthly, so she knows their names. Some take a year to graduate, some take more. All of Farnell's graduates have jobs. Most have earned their GEDs. Many have enrolled in college, and gone from being homeless to homeowners.
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"I'm very, very proud to be a part of this," the woman with disco ball earrings told a reporter. "Obviously, I'm a cat with nine lives."
Her name is Valerie Carter. She's 58, old enough to be most of the defendants' mom. For decades, she has been James Taylor's backup singer.
You can hear her on Angry Blues, on his 1975 album, Gorilla; on Money Machine on the 1976 album, In the Pocket. She toured with Taylor in 1993 and 1994, and is on the live album. She has also sung with Linda Ronstadt, Little Feat, Lyle Lovett, Neil Diamond and Ringo Starr.
"I was one of the first Betty Ford-ers," she said. "I was sober for 15 years."
But in August 2009, St. Petersburg police caught Carter with cocaine. Two months later, it was crack. Luckily, she said, she landed in Farnell's drug court.
James Taylor paid for her three-month stay in a Texas rehab.
"It was so hard," Carter said. "But it saved my life."
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Three elementary-age girls opened the graduation, singing You've Got a Friend. Counselors and cops, county commissioners and mayors all sang along.
"Helllooo, Clearwater!" the judge called to the crowd. "These 100 people have made such valiant attempts at rehabilitation, and now they have so many doors open to them.
"They have learned," she said. Then she quoted her favorite James Taylor song, "The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time."
Taylor laughed and said, "I was high when I wrote that."
He told the audience he was overwhelmed. That he never imagined he'd see such an enlightened community, coming together to care "for those of us who have the disease of addiction." For 18 years, he said, he did drugs. "I thought the day I ended up institutionalized was the low point of my life," he said. "The possibility that it would open up a whole new life hadn't occurred to me then. … But we are all people today who can hope to be part of the strength of society, rather than the ones who weigh on it."
He urged the recovering addicts to exercise. Told them to stay away from drugs and alcohol. He said they inspired him.
He didn't sing.
But when the judge took the stack of certificates and called up the first graduate, "Valerie Carter!" Taylor crossed the courtroom to kiss his backup singer. Carter clung to him and cried.
"She has had a long relationship with Mr. Taylor," the judge explained to the audience. "You have heard her on his albums.
"And you will hear her again."
Lane DeGregory can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8825.