By Dana Kozlov

CHICAGO (CBS) — Judges usually sit on a bench and hand down sentences.

But in one Cook County program, judges are more like parent figures than punishers.

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CBS 2’s Dana Kozlov explains.

It’s a graduation like no other.

Convicted felons, addicts — getting their clean and sober, crime-free certificates.

“I can’t believe I’m here and I’m not going back,” one graduate, Renece, says.

She and her fellow graduates are completing the Cook County drug court’s “RAP” program, which stands for Rehabilitative Alternative Probation.

Candidates are hand-picked — without their knowledge — by a team and presiding Judge Charles Burns.

“Sometimes people go into the program kicking and screaming,” he says.

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Most are addicts with prior non-violent felony convictions who’ve violated probation. If chosen, their two-year program includes intensive rehab, community service, random drug tests and self-help meetings.

Perhaps the most powerful component: The judge mentors them.

“Number one, they’re people. Number two, in the criminal courts system we see too much tragedy, despair, and (with) programs such as this there’s hope, success,” Burns says.

Numbers suggest it’s working.

“All the studies show it’s cost effective. It reduces recidivism, but the more compelling aspect of it is it really does save lives,” retired judge Lawrence Fox says.

Just ask graduate Samuel Best.

“I’m just happy,” he tells Kozlov.

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Over 10 years, arrests among graduates are down more than 50 percent. But like many county programs, there are budget concerns. Burns says they’re scrambling to find providers to help keep it going.