Graduation from drug treatment court gives man new start on life

After a lifetime of addiction and crime, 54-year-old Donnie Kinistino graduated from drug treatment court last month.
Donnie Kinistino is attending Norquest College in Edmonton after successfully completing drug treatment court last month. (CBC )

Donnie Kinistino is proof that you're never too old to start over.

After a lifetime of addiction and crime, the 54-year-old Edmonton man graduated from drug treatment court on Nov. 26.

During his 16 months in the program, Kinistino stayed sober and checked in with a judge every Wednesday. His graduation ceremony was marked by tears and applause.

Donnie Kinistino in a police photo from March 2011. (Edmonton Police Service )
"I'm honoured to be able to be here today,” the judge told Kinistino before presenting him with a framed certificate. She even stepped down from the bench to give him a hug.

“Today is essentially the beginning of the rest of my life,” a beaming Kinistino said afterwards, while clutching his certificate.

Since drug court started in Edmonton nine years ago, only 97 people have graduated out of the 306 who registered in the program.

Most either left or were kicked out, a testament to the challenges involved.

“It was a wonderful, wonderful thing to complete and be successful,” Kinistino said. “ So I was really, really happy.”

Breaking a cycle

Drug treatment court was started 25 years ago in Miami's Dade County, by a judge who kept seeing the same people going through the courtroom.

The program started in Edmonton in 2005, and provincial court judge Elizabeth Johnson has presided for the last six years.

Provincial court judge Elizabeth Johnson has presided over Edmonton drug treatment court for six years. (CBC )
Johnson said the program is intended to break the cycle of criminal behaviour driven by drug addiction.

“The idea of our court, and I think many other courts, is not simply to deal with the addiction,” she said. “But to deal with the person as a whole person. And to reintegrate that person, if you will, into their community.”

Entrance into the program starts with a guilty plea. Ideally, the person starts an inpatient treatment program.

Every Wednesday, they appear before a judge to report their successes and failures and receive an assignment for the following week.

They must submit to random drug tests and perform community service.

“It’s a supervisory role,” Johnson said of her position. “And in some respects, almost a coaching role.”

Those who fail to follow the program are sent back to regular court for sentencing. Those who succeed are given a one-day sentence, which is served by appearing in court for graduation.  

Johnson finds it “amazing” to see the change in people week after week.

“And it's not just what they have done.  It's even what they look like,” she said.

“People who are in their addiction or just coming off it often don't look that healthy. In fact, some of them look pretty bad. So we get to know them and see the changes and it's a wonderful thing to see.”

Sniffing gas at 14

Kinistino’s path towards addiction and crime started early.

Born to a teenage aboriginal mother in Winnipeg, he was placed in foster care when he was a baby.

He said he didn’t feel like he fit in with his white foster family.

That changed when he sniffed gas for the first time at age 14.

“It's a very strange thing to recall those thoughts but I felt - I felt normal.  So all of a sudden I felt connected, I felt alive,” he said.

“Which progressed to drinking, which then progressed to pills, marijuana, cocaine, heroin and finally methamphetamine, which was the total downfall of all this.”.

Life revolved around his addictions. Kinistino said he committed property crimes and sold drugs on the street.

An arrest in July 2012 was the final straw.

“I was tired of losing the people that I loved,” he said. “All the people that I cared about, I would lose due to prison, due to addiction.”

So Kinistino spent 13 months in the Edmonton Remand Centre waiting to be accepted into drug treatment court. He started the program on July 26, 2013.

Fresh start, hopeful outlook

Sober for two and a half years, Kinistino now attends classes at Norquest College, in hopes of eventually studying social work.

He has a bank account for the first time in 25 years and lives in an apartment, in a building run by the Salvation Army.

He is reaching out to estranged family members, including a daughter who was born when he was in a federal prison 30 years ago.

“The world to me at one time was a hateful and vengeful environment,” Kinistino said.

“That's since changed through the process of recovery to be one of opportunity and love and optimism.”

Although drug treatment court has changed the lives of many former offenders, its future is uncertain.

The program stopped taking new clients in July. Next year, Edmonton will receive a smaller portion of money from the federal government.

As for Alberta Justice, officials won’t commit to funding the court. The province is in the middle of drafting the 2015 budget.

With oil sinking below $60 a barrel, Premier Jim Prentice has indicated that his government is looking at spending cuts.