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After six years in drug court, finally, a graduation

When the bailiff proclaimed the session completed, the stampede began.

Nearly 100 drug offenders had been crammed in Courtroom 1 at the Criminal Justice Center in Clearwater for hours, and they were now scurrying for the doors.

If you weren't looking for him, you might have never noticed the young man lingering behind. He was the one whose shirt and tie clashed just as boldly as his past and future.

It had been more than six years since his first appearance in this building, and Antonio Clark was finally free to leave with a clean conscience and record.

Instead, he chose to wait until he caught the eye of Judge Dee Anna Farnell. She was responsible for the Pinellas County Drug Court graduation certificate in his left hand. She was also responsible for the poster-sized enlargement of his mug shot in his right hand.

Look at the sullen teenager in that photo, she had previously told him, and always remember how far you have come.

Now, in a near-empty courthouse, defendant and judge embraced.

"You have options now,'' she told him. "You can choose the life you want.''

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It should probably be noted that this is not a textbook example of how drug court is supposed to work.

Not with an enrollee who keeps bouncing in and out of short jail stints and long rehab stays. Not with the State Attorney's Office keeping a tally of his screw-ups and potential sentence. Not with a judge wondering if she gave him one chance too many.

Yet, in a larger sense, Antonio Clark, 24, is exactly why drug court exists. It is a safety net for those worth saving. A way to rescue young people before they are caught in a merry-go-round of prison, drugs and poverty.

"When I first saw Antonio Clark, I remember thinking he was a kid who was trying so hard to be a wannabe tough guy,'' Farnell said. "He was a kid who was getting caught up in the street life, and who needed a chance at a different lifestyle.

"I like to think I have a lot of patience, but he tested me. There were times when the state wanted him to go to prison. But after 19 years as a judge, you look for signs. For a twinkle in the eye, or a glimmer of something more. Some recognition that he doesn't want to start that cycle of going in and out of prison.''

Addiction did not seem to be Clark's problem as much as immaturity. He would get tossed from rehab for breaking curfew or losing his temper. He would test positive for marijuana because he was hanging with the wrong crowd.

A second chance turned into third, fourth and fifth chances. And each time he violated a drug court rule, he was tacking additional time on to his potential sentence.

But by the end of 2012, Clark knew he was at a crossroads. The State Attorney's Office was arguing to boot him out of drug court, and Farnell had been pushed as far as possible.

Facing another violation and bench warrant, Clark walked into the office of attorney Loren Pincus and asked for a miracle.

"I call up his file and it's 10 pages long. I'm thinking, 'What the hell am I going to do with this kid?' " Pincus said. "But there was just something about him. He was polite, he was intelligent, he was well-mannered. A lot of kids in his position would say, 'Just get me the lowest possible sentence and let's get this over with.' But he didn't want the felony conviction on his record. He knew what it would mean the rest of his life.

"We had a lot of heart-to-hearts. I told him this was his last chance, and if he messed up again, it was going to add points to his sentence. I was potentially setting him up for failure, so I wanted him to understand the risk he was taking.''

Pincus persuaded the court to give Clark one more chance, and he entered the Simply Hope residential facility in November. It was there, Clark said, that he finally grew up. That he discovered his own potential and self-worth.

He got a job at Checkers. He got his GED. He recently completed his application to enroll at St. Petersburg College in the fall. He graduated from drug court, which means the 6-year-old arrest for possession has been wiped from his record.

Mostly, he left behind the life he had been living.

"I thought about all of the people who had stuck their necks out for me. The people here in the courthouse who had faith in me,'' Clark said. "If I failed again, it would have been like slapping them in the face. I definitely didn't want to have a felony conviction, but I also didn't want to disappoint them. I did it for them as much as for me.''

The courtroom is nearly empty, and Clark's ride is waiting outside. He isn't exactly sure what he wants to do with his life, but he is now confident of what he should avoid.

Just to be sure, he picks up his mug shot and heads for the exit.