Graduates of Essex County, N.J.'s Drug Court program got a hard-hitting message of support from a surprise guest speaker Monday: boxing hall of famer Mike Tyson.
Tyson, who himself has a history of substance abuse, was the main event at the graduation ceremony for 17 people who completed drug-court — a form of intensive, closely monitored probation for nonviolent drug- and alcohol-addicted defendants.
"I'm really proud of these graduates," Tyson said to the elated crowd, who gave the retired fighter a standing ovation at the Mary B. Burch Theater at Essex County College in Newark.
"You all look like wounded warriors, but we won," he added.
Still, Tyson warned them, "The fight's not over." "The disease is still after you" and "is going to haunt you," he added.
Tyson, 47, didn't hold back during the roughly 10-minute address, riddled with expletives.
"I was fortunate to be an addict with billionaires," said Tyson, speaking about the other cocaine users with whom he kept company. "These guys are disgusting, but they own all of Hollywood."
It goes to show that money often worsens addiction rather than curing it, Tyson told the graduates, imploring them not to blame their troubles on poverty or hard luck.
"No one's going to [get through life] without enduring any kind of suffering or pain," he continued.
After the address, while speaking with reporters backstage, Tyson drove that point home. "It's bigger than you being poor," Tyson reiterated.
Tyson admitted that he's still "tempted all the time" to relapse, but uses prayer and a "good support system" to resist those urges — a theme echoed by other speakers Monday.
Also addressing graduates and onlookers was Superior Court Assignment Judge Patricia Costello and Judge Ramona Santiago, full-time administrator of Essex's Drug Court, which has nearly 600 participants.
Santiago said her new role is different from her former job conducting criminal trials. "In the courtroom, it's very adversarial. The judge is really talking to the attorneys," she says. "Here, I talk to the participants one on one."
Tyson's appearance was born out of his friendship with Mario Costa, owner of the Ringside Lounge in Jersey City, and the adjacent boxing gym of the same name. The Brooklyn-born boxer trained at Ringside, and since 1987 the two have been friends, says Costa, who attended Monday's event.
Also, Tyson has bred racing pigeons in a coop on the property ("Tyson's Corner") where the TV show "Taking on Tyson" — an Animal Planet documentary series about Tyson's training of the birds — was filmed.
Costa says he's been friends with Santiago since before her appointment to the bench in 2003.
Last year, Santiago asked Costa whether Tyson would be interested in speaking at a graduation ceremony, Costa said. Tyson agreed and now, "he wants to do this nationally," Costa said. "He feels like he can help because they listen to him."
Tyson, a 2011 inductee to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, went 50-6-2 in a his 20-year pro boxing career, won 44 bouts by knockout, became the youngest heavyweight champion in 1986 at the age of 19, and was the undisputed champion beginning in 1987 after winning the title from each of the three professional boxing associations in existence at the time.
He's been equally notable for his legal troubles. Tyson was convicted of sexually assaulting an 18-year-old beauty pageant contestant in an Indianapolis hotel room in 1991 and spent about three years in prison, but returned to boxing after his release and won back two titles.
In a 1997 bout, Tyson was disqualified for biting off a chunk of Evander Holyfield's ear.
Tyson said Monday he completed a rehabilitation program in Los Angeles in 2006, though at least one relapse has been reported — a 2007 arrest in Las Vegas for allegedly driving erratically and possessing bags of cocaine, after which he checked himself into a treatment facility.
Also, Tyson admitted to being under the influence of cocaine during the 2009 filming of "The Hangover," a blockbuster comedy movie in which he had a cameo appearance.
Most recently, Tyson has been on tour performing a one-man stage production — "Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth," billed as a tell-all autobiography.
A Decade of Successes
In New Jersey, 13,079 participants have enrolled in Drug Courts since 2002, according to judiciary statistics through February. Participants are monitored closely, submit to regular drug testing and report for frequent court appearances, among other terms.
The programs were initially designed to last five years, though participants now may graduate early if they stay drug- and crime-free, and meet other obligations. Many complete the program in about three years, court officials say.
New Jersey's drug courts began in Camden and Essex counties in 1996 and in Mercer, Passaic and Union counties in 1999. In 2001, after the Conference of Criminal Presiding Judges recommended expansion, legislation made the program statewide.
In 2002, the Bergen, Cumberland/Gloucester/Salem, Monmouth, Morris/Sussex and Ocean vicinages instituted programs. The remaining five vicinages — Atlantic/Cape May, Burlington, Hudson, Middlesex and Somerset/Hunterdon/Warren — did so in 2004.
In 2008, the Legislature amended the drug court statute by removing a provision barring prior participants from being admitted a second time.
That same year, New Jersey became the second state to receive the nonprofit National Association of Drug Court Professionals' award for committing the resources and leadership needed to ensure that the program is available for all eligible offenders.
As of July 1, Drug Court has become mandatory for eligible nonviolent drug offenders in Somerset/Hunterdon/Warren, Hudson and Ocean.