Judge Rebecca Stern lost her words.
For just a moment, the Hamilton County Criminal Court judge paused Monday, choking back tears. Before her was a packed, hot courtroom, every inch of space occupied by proud mothers and smiling spouses and squalling infants.
Drug court graduation is a rare few hours of joy inside a building that sees more than its share of sorrow. It's the only thing that Stern, whose retirement is effective June 1, says she will miss. Monday marked the last ceremony over which Stern will preside.
So, on the bench where she often gives the final word, for just a few moments, she was speechless.
"It's going to be hard for me," she told the crowd. "Everybody's gonna help me get through it, right?"
Stern helped establish Hamilton County's first drug court program in 2005 and has been its driving force for a decade. Prosecutors work to screen candidates, who must be nonviolent offenders and must plead guilty to their existing charges and pay court fines and costs. The program is tough -- it requires employment, regular screening, attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings and education.
Program Director Elaine Kelly said Stern is the program's heart.
"She doesn't embarrass, she doesn't humiliate. She's strict with good boundaries. She's tough love," Kelly said.
Drug court staff say the program's recidivism rate is just 7.7 percent, and they estimate it has saved county taxpayers more than $12 million since it began.
"This program has saved my life and given me my family back," new graduate Robyn Morgan said.
Morgan, 27, held her 4-month-old baby girl during the ceremony, which included before-and-after pictures of participants and graduates. "Befores" were mostly mug shots. Some showed cuts and bruises, dark circles under eyes, faces that looked thin and gaunt. "Afters" showed grins, healthy skin and the chubby babies graduates held after making it through.
"The program isn't as tough as it seems," Morgan said. "It's just really about how bad you want it."
When Morgan's family joined her at the podium usually reserved for attorneys, they told her they were proud. Her sisters said they'd seen her at her lowest, when she was using methamphetamine and violating probation. They see her now, happy and inspiring a younger brother who's also on track to finish the program.
Stern's replacement likely will be appointed some time in June. All three finalists for the position have said they'll continue the program when she leaves. Even though she'll be retired to Puerto Rico in a few weeks, Stern told Monday's class of seven graduates and others in the program that she won't stop watching when she's gone.
"Don't let me down, and keep up the good work," Stern said. "Because I'm not going to forget about you."
After the ceremony, the graduates and drug court staff planned a surprise: a choreographed dance to the Bruno Mars song "Uptown Funk." As Stern looked on, men and women she'd cheered on for years spun to the song's strong bass. It seemed a little like an assurance.
"Don't believe me?" Mars sang. "Just watch."
Contact staff writer Claire Wiseman at cwise email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @clairelwiseman.