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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News
Heather Lewis, case manager for drug court participants, hugs Dan Staheli at his graduation from the Probation Drug Court program on Friday. The new program was designed to help offenders with less-than-stellar records.

PROVO — It's been a long year for Mark Bess but on Friday, he could honestly say that now he loves his life.

"I learned what friends are and how to keep friends," said Bess, one of the three men to graduate from Probation Drug Court Friday in 4th District Court. "I remember when I first started getting sober ... some of my first real friends were in recovery, officers from the jail, my probation officer. I thought that was kind of embarrassing. (But these are) people that inspire me."

The 25-year-old man looked down at his shoes as his voice cracked.

"I have gratitude today," he said, wiping at his eyes. "I love my life and I love everybody here."

Just a year ago, Bess; Kirt Draney, 30; and Dan Staheli, 27, entered the probation drug court program as "angry boys," teetering on the edge of going to prison.

If they couldn't make it through this "last-chance program" without slipping back into drugs and crime, they would be done with second chances.

But Friday, they graduated from the program as "responsible men," said Heather Lewis, the case manager for Probation Drug Court participants.

"It's been a real honor to be a part of the changes that these three guys have been able to do in their lives," Lewis said. "It's really awesome to see what they were and what they've been willing to do to change."

The changes began when these three men were referred to the new program by Adult Probation and Parole, which monitors those on probation.

A new client starts Probation Drug Court by going to substance abuse treatment every day, submitting to daily drug tests and working to pay back court fines and fees.

As they progress, the daily classes lessen to several times or even just one time a week. The fines decrease as they pay them off.

Clients also report each week to Judge Samuel McVey who either praises their progress or reminds them of their responsibilities and imposes community service hours or jail time, if needed.

The idea of a drug court is nothing new — Utah County has had an effective one for several years, Lewis said.

However, participants in the regular drug court are first-time offenders — which excluded Bess, Draney or Staheli, though their charges are all still drug-related.

So last January, 4th District Court, Adult Probation and Parole, the Utah County Division of Substance Abuse and the Utah County Attorney's Office came up with the idea of Probation Drug Court to help those with less-than-stellar records.

Friday's graduation was the first fruits of that program.

"I have the honor of conducting the first graduation," Judge Samuel McVey told the graduates, family, friends and other probation drug court participants. "I'm particularly impressed (at) where these folks started out. They were basically on their way to prison, and this may be the hardest thing they've done in their lives."

Each man was presented with a certificate and small gift, then asked what they'd learned.

"That you guys are smarter than I am," Staheli said, looking at Lewis and his other mentors. "Life's a lot better on the other side."

"Any advice for the other clients?" Lewis asked.

He looked out at those gathered, "They're smarter than you," he said, getting a chuckle from the audience.

Staheli's wife, Nannette, watched eagerly, holding the couple's baby, 1 1/2-year-old Brooklyn.

"It's amazing," she said. "It's a cool experience to have him complete this. He's struggled this for a long, long time."

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