The Dallas Examiner
On the surface, the Successful Treatment of Addiction through Collaboration graduation ceremony, held May 12, was a yearly ceremonial statement that 27 felons arrested between 2008 to 2012 had completed their drug rehabilitation and, in some cases, were also being freed from probation. Yet to those individuals exiting the S.T.A.C. program – in robes, seated in the front of the jury room at the Frank Crowley Courts Building, accompanied by friends and family – the affair was much more than just show; it represented personal success, a message of forgiveness from society at large in exchange for their labors, and the offer of a second chance at a better life in appreciation for confronting their demons head-on.
“They’ve truly given me a chance to start my life over and change my life, and I have truly done that, and I’m so grateful,” said 2017 graduate Kristina Brown. “The S.T.A.C. Court program and my second chance has helped me to do that, and truly change the way that I think, the people that I surround myself with, and just my actions.”
The court was created in January 2007 by Judge Lela Mays, who presides over it along with Judge Gracie Lewis, according to a statement released by the county.
“From a life of repeated felonies and failed attempts at drug or alcohol rehabilitation, Dallas County Courts’ S.T.A.C. Program seeks to transform lives and help defendants re-enter society as productive citizens, ultimately saving county taxpayers millions, and possibly saving their own lives,” the statement read in part.
The 12-to-18-month program was designed around accountability to transition post-treatment defendants back into community. To fulfill the conditions of S.T.A.C., graduates must continue to meet with probation officers and members of the court. They take outpatient treatment classes, attend Narcotics and/or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and they must maintain clean drug and alcohol tests. They have to keep a job, work community service hours and pay back any related court fines and fees.
The county also contends S.T.A.C. saves the taxpayers money since the graduates are not in jail, are paying restitution and child support, and fewer drug-addicted children needing specialized care are being born.
Retired judge John Creuzot was a founder of the Dallas Initiative for Expedited Recovery and Treatment Court, a S.T.A.C. precursor. He noted the population that experienced incarceration with limited substance abuse treatment had a high recidivism rate during that early program. In contrast, after he and others assisted in developing some new programs that stressed management by the court – like S.T.A.C. – things changed for offenders.
“And by that time we had developed the numbers that show that they had done very, very well when they were judicially supervised; probation officers and case workers, and a whole structure to help support them in their recovery,” he said.
According to statistics presented on The Creuzot Law Firm website, there was a 68 percent reduction in recidivism for those who went through revamped DIVERT Court, and for every $1 spent on a program participant, an estimated $9 was saved by avoiding criminal court costs.
To probation officer Melissa Hastings, the overall spirit of the day seemed much less clinical and measured, however. As she addressed the women who had been under her authority and advocacy throughout the past several months, Hastings revealed her feelings towards those who were moving on.
“Ladies, I am such a fan of you. You are kind and you’re hilarious and you’re absolutely beautiful. I’ve heard a saying – you’re saved by something, for something greater – and if this is true then by ourselves we don’t have much to offer but together we’re extraordinary and ladies, you are extraordinary,” the officer said, as an odd family member in the room would occasionally nod, or dab at a tear.
One of the participating judges also shared a message to those on the cusp of freedom.
“This is National Drug Court Month and we want to celebrate you all,” said Lewis of Criminal District Court 3 as she spoke of the difficult times the defendants and their families had endured. “We recognize that this has not been easy. It has not been easy for anybody. This is a hard program, but you all have done it. You have all managed to succeed.
“This is just the beginning. This is absolutely just the beginning. From now on we’ve given you the skills that you need and are to go out, stay clean, go out and be productive.”
She also assured the graduates that if they should ever find themselves struggling, they would not be abandoned upon release.
“We’ll always be here. We’ll always be family. We’ll always welcome you back, whether it’s just to talk to us, or get a word of encouragement,” she told them.
Medals were placed around the necks of each graduate, affirming that they had successfully completed the work in breaking free from the drugs and alcohol that often lead to their turning to robbery or prostitution as a way to feed their past addictions.
At one point, graduate Julius Billy offered his view on what it was like to go through the transformation from the life of an offender to a life of sobriety. He joked that, after going to jail three times, “[he] really did learn why they call Judge Lewis ‘Lock ‘Em Up Lewis,’” which drew the biggest laugh of the day from both the audience and court staff.
“It’s hard. There’s no doubt about it. But if you’re really serious, and you’re really trying to make change in your life, it can be had,” he said about the positive direction S.T.A.C. had provided him.
“All you’ve got to do is just make up your mind to do it. That’s the thing for a lot of us, especially for me, that I had to overcome – I had to overcome the fact that I was the one that was wrong,” Billy emphasized to the listeners who had come to support him, or – possibly – to those in the crowd who may be privately fighting a similar battle. “I was the one that put myself in this situation, and once I figured that out I told myself, because I got myself in this situation, I’m going to get myself out of this situation.”