DALLAS (AP) — Longtime marijuana smoker Stephan Chavez was headed nowhere.
It was summer 2011, the 22-year-old Dallas man had been on probation for drug-related cases for years, and, after a few more arrests, he picked up his first felony drug charge.
"I just saw my future (as) really, really bleak," Chavez said. "There was nothing that I saw for my future as far as outside of the jail walls. I really thought that was it."
But that wasn't it. Chavez's attorney got him into Dallas County's DIVERT program (Diversion and Expedited Rehabilitation and Treatment), an intense rehabilitation court that offers personal counseling and aims to teach clients to live a life of structure, accountability and sobriety.
The Dallas Morning News (http://dallasne.ws/176gMiR ) reports the court is for people facing a first-time state jail or third-degree felony drug charge. Participants, who pay $1,040, must be in need of inpatient or outpatient treatment for a substance abuse problem. The program includes a judge, attorneys, case managers and counselors whose aim is to help people overcome addiction, rather than punish them for their mistakes.
Last month, Chavez became one of about 2,000 people to graduate since it launched in 1998. That means Chavez's felony case is dismissed and his arrest can be expunged.
It isn't easy, but it's an increasingly common alternative form of justice that experts say is a key factor in recent prison population declines here and nationally.
"We're catching people on the very front end, before they ever have a record," said state District Judge Robert Burns, who has presided over the weekly court sessions since January 2012. It's a volunteer role in addition to his day job as a Dallas County felony court judge.
Psychologists evaluate candidates for the program to determine their substance abuse or drug addiction and what, if any, psychiatric problems they might have. A treatment plan is catered to their needs and may include six months of inpatient care at the Judge John C. Creuzot Judicial Treatment Center or a shorter stay at another inpatient facility.
The center, which is in Wilmer, is named after the judge who launched DIVERT at a time when it wasn't exactly a popular idea among his judicial colleagues. The most common refrain he recalls was the fear that someone in the program might slip up and commit a crime that drew media attention.
"I was doing something vastly different from what was going on and it was at night, it was extra work," said Creuzot, who retired as a judge last year and is now a criminal defense attorney.
"Some of the criticism was designed to maybe convince me not to do it," he said. "But I had a vision and until we got the recidivism and cost-benefit numbers back we didn't really know."
About two-thirds of people who enter the program complete it successfully.
A 2012 Dallas County study looked at 93 clients who went through the court and 93 others who were eligible but did not participate. The recidivism rate among DIVERT graduates was just under 10 percent, as compared with 27 percent among those who failed the program and 29 percent for the group that did not participate.
That study found that DIVERT reduced recidivism by 52 percent. DIVERT's total budget last year was $590,000, including state and local funds.
DIVERT was one of the first programs of its kind in the state. Now, there are 135 different drug or substance abuse courts in the state, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Only California and New York have more.
"Texas, with this national reputation of sort of, 'lock 'em up, throw away the key,' is really one of the leading states in terms of criminal justice reform and in terms of expanding drug courts and veterans' treatment courts," said Christopher Deutsch, a spokesman for the national drug court group.
Among the most striking differences between the program and a traditional courtroom is the way the judge interacts with the clients. During a recent Thursday night session at the Frank Crowley Courts Building, a woman who had missed some required meetings came before Burns.
"We're in this to win it," Burns told her. "Well, this is your judicial reprimand. You've got to make up those meetings."
What followed was something unheard of in most courtrooms — a round of applause from the room full of supportive DIVERT participants.
The program is actually more stringent than a typical probation even in cases that don't involve inpatient treatment.
"You're going to report three or four times the first week and the first five or six weeks," Creuzot said. "You'll be drug-tested every time you show up, including at court if necessary, you're expected to make your meetings, to make your treatment meetings, to participate, to show progress."
If there are not signs of progress, the treatment plan will be adjusted. If a person fails a drug test in the final four months of the program, they are automatically kicked out.
Chavez said he never got close to that point. But he was surprised at what he'd gotten himself into.
"You literally live at the courthouse like for the good first six months," he said.
At one point, he overslept and was late to an appointment. For that, he spent 24 hours in jail and was put on a zero-tolerance policy for 30 days.
He didn't mess up again and, last month, Chavez was one of three people to graduate in a ceremony at the courthouse. Today, the UPS sorter said his relationship with his wife is healthier, his hair is more well-kempt and he's even a better dresser.
"I've never had a probation that made me quit my drug of choice," Chavez said. "I've always came up dirty on every urinary analysis I've taken and DIVERT is the first time I've ever taken responsibility for it and actually gave myself some sobriety."
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com