Lindsay Arf was popular in high school but struggled academically. So she skipped classes and started smoking weed.

Believing she wouldn’t get into college, she started dancing at a strip club where her cousin worked. The next 12 years devolved into a painful life of drug addiction and sexual exploitation.

While high, Arf was arrested on mail theft. She begged to be allowed into Hennepin County’s Drug Court, an intensive treatment program that helped her sister into recovery.

Now 35 and sober for 2 ½ years, she’s a paid public speaker who also works with sexually abused and exploited victims. In an upbeat and personal ceremony Friday, Arf and 37 other people celebrated graduation from drug court. Sharing their stories of recovery from addiction is part of the healing process.

“Drug court has given me back my life,” Arf said. “It’s a hard program, but not that hard if you don’t pick up [drugs again]. If you do, tragic things happen.”

Hennepin County started the state’s first drug court in 1997. The voluntary post-conviction program, which lasts at least 12 months, accepts nonviolent, felony property and drug offenders at high risk to reoffend. Participants are guided by a team consisting of a judge, a prosecutor, a defense attorney, law enforcement, social services, probation and treatment specialists.

Progress is rewarded for meeting goals, and noncompliant behavior is swiftly punished, said District Judge Gina Brandt, who supervises drug court. Offenders are placed under intensive community supervision, undergo frequent drug testing and engage in long-term chemical dependency treatment. They also get job training, education and family counseling, Brandt said.

A very high percentage of people entering the program have severe addiction. A 2017 study of the drug court found that 60 percent of those who completed it didn’t reoffend and had no new warrants after two years. More than one in five obtained more stable housing and better education and employment.

“I witness miracles in drug court every day,” Brandt said. “Today, we give credit and attention to something good going on in the world — and that’s the graduates.”

Before she took over drug court 18 months ago, the judge said she saw thousands of faces that haunted her at the end of the day. It would be somebody she had sentenced to prison, crime victims or a child who testified about being sexually abused.

The common denominator was that each person left her courtroom with a sense of hopelessness, she said.

“But that all changed when I was assigned to the eighth floor, where the treatment courts are held,” Brandt said. “It’s where the magic happens, but it is not a program for the weak.”

Just 42 percent of the participants in 2017 graduated from drug court. But Brandt said what she hears from graduates leads her to believe that the innovative approach is worth the county’s resources.

“There’s the person who can drive their child to school for the first time or families reuniting after years of distance,” she said. “There is also the person who tells me about seeing a sunset sober for the first time and the man who bought an eight-room house so he could house those trying to get sober.”

Many of Friday’s graduates couldn’t attend the ceremony because they couldn’t miss a day of work. Three of drug court’s probation officers called out each name, regardless, and some chose to share a few words.

Donna Washington, who is now a recovery coach, said the drug court staff saw something in her that she never would have found herself. Scott Arnold, who was busted with 56 grams of cocaine in 2017, believed he should have gone straight to prison instead of catching a break with the program. Jason Stevens, choking back tears, went through three judges, four probation officers and several treatment failures before achieving his new sober life.

Raymond Perttu joked that Brandt unofficially ordered him to speak at the ceremony. Doing a little pot and cocaine in high school wasn’t such a big deal, he said. Then he became hooked on methamphetamine. He landed in jail for a high-level drug sales offense at age 32. He started asking other inmates about drug court, he said, and “nearly all of them told me that I didn’t want any part of it.”

Perttu left treatment but found that doing drugs wasn’t so fun anymore. He was holed up in a hotel room when he saw a police officer coming to his door. He turned himself in, but asked to smoke one last cigarette before going back to jail. The officer agreed, and Perttu lit up in the back of the squad. He eventually made it through treatment. His greatest success has been regaining the love and respect of his family, he said.

“I know addicts and they aren’t all bad people,” Perttu said. “They just made some bad choices.”