It's been a long road for a unique group of graduates.

The nearly 30 smiling grads weren't leaving school, instead they had just completed the year-long Dallas county courts drug program. And instead of thanking teachers, they were thanking the police officers who arrested them, and the judges who sentenced them.

"This is just the beginning, this is absolutely just the beginning for you,” said Judge Gracie Lewis, who is one of two judges presiding over the drug treatment court. “From now on, we’ve given you the skills that you need and are to go out, stay clean, go out and be productive.”

Now in its 10th year, the Successful Treatment of Addiction Through Collaboration (S.T.A.C.) program seeks to transform lives and help defendants re-enter society as productive citizens through intensive supervision for defendants on felony probation returning from inpatient treatment for drug or alcohol addiction. More than 1,600 non-violent drug-abusing offenders have graduated the program which includes court monitored drug treatment and rehabilitation services.

“They truly did give me to start my life over and change my life,” said 2017 graduate Kristina Brown. “I have truly done that.”

A woman celebrates graduating from a year-long drug program in Dallas County
A woman celebrates graduating from a year-long drug program in Dallas County

In the audience were friends, family and former graduates. District Attorney Faith Johnson also made an appearance. Several speakers addressed the crowd, sharing personal stories and giving support.

“As a prior graduate, I know the hard work it takes to get here,” Dionne Cheshier, a former drug court-graduate-turned-business-owner, told the crowd. “It’s very easy to get out of control. And it’s very easy to go back out there.”

Court officials say drug offenders who complete programs like this significantly reduce their chances of getting in trouble again. Nationwide, 75 percent of Drug Court graduates remain arrest-free at least two years after leaving the program, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

“Programs like this work,” said Judge Lela Mays, who also presides over drug court. “Maybe you should give people another chance instead of just locking them up with nothing else.”

For some, graduation day also meant early release from probation. There was even a judge signing release papers on-site, surprising attendees.

Before graduates posed for photos with their medals and certificates, should times get hard, judge Lewis had a few last words.

“We’ll always be here, we’ll always be family,” she said. “We always welcome you back, whether it’s just to talk to us or just get a word of encouragement.”