Friday marks an important day for dozens of adults who once faced hard prison time.
30 men and women will graduate from drug court, which is one of many “specialty courts,” in Dallas County.
The 12-to-18-month probationary program takes a more holistic approach to rehabilitation. Judge Lela D. Mays has been presiding over drug courts for 15 years, and STAC court for 10 years. She has witnessed former defendants (who once struggled with addiction) transform during the year long program.
“I think it makes a difference when you really treat someone in the criminal justice system as a person,” said Mays. “I never call people by their number, I call people by their name. Yes, they have offended someone in some way. They are here, they’re on probation, they have a case, but I also think it’s important to find out what is really going on. What is behind the substance abuse,” she said.
Getting to the root of addiction can take time. Drug court officers accountability and encouragement, but the program also demands discipline.
“It was hard for me at first,” said Tammy McAlister, who graduates Friday from the program.
“The first three months were overwhelming. I had to be in court at least twice a week, we are constantly drug tested, I had to check in with my probation officer, counselor, and peers,” she said.
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McAlister lives in Irving and would take the one hour 45 minute bus ride into downtown Dallas several times a week.
“It was worth it! I would be dead or in prison if it wasn’t for this program," McAlister said. "I have so much more to look forward to. I want to go to school, and I’m going to get my own car and pay for it myself. It’s a great accomplishment. They may seem like little things, but to me its huge. I have burned so many bridges and to see my relationship restored, and my identity and sense of worth restored, it’s a great accomplishment,” she said.
McAlister’s family were set to fly in from Oklahoma to see her graduate from the program. Some of the police officers who arrested them will be at the ceremony cheering the graduates on.
The program has cut the recidivism rate in half, but cuts to grant funding could potentially halt the progress made in Dallas County. Specialty courts throughout Texas will be take a hit and lose funding at the end of August 2017.
The Press Secretary from the Office of the Governor confirmed the cuts in funding.
“Due to a statewide decrease in court fee collections, the Criminal Justice Division has less available discretionary funds to invest in these important programs," said John Wittman, Texas press Secretary. "To ensure these finite resources can be maximized, CJD is working to instill practices that will ensure operational excellence and identify those programs that are most effective at helping Texans make the most of their second chance.”
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The budget will be tight, but Dallas County leaders are determined to keep the program afloat. “I think there are a lot of people who are misled without the proper information, and they are not equipped to make that analysis,” said Dionne Chesher who graduated from Drug Court almost eight years ago. “One visit to the court room and one visit to a graduation, get involved and you would see that it really is helping,” she said.
According to recent statistics, specialty courts have helped to cut the recidivism rate in half in Dallas County. The graduation ceremony takes place this afternoon.