"No Jail" option gives Nebraska drug courts a role in reducing prison crowding

Courtroom (Photo:Getty Images/Photos.com)
Handcuffs (Photo:Getty Images/Photos.com)
Drug Court graduation day. (Photo courtesy of Lancaster District Court)
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January 30, 2014 - 6:30am

After ten years Nebraska’s drug court system no longer wants to be considered an experiment.  While debate peaks over what to do about the state’s overcrowded prisons and county jails, local drug courts operating in 11 judicial districts are getting new attention.  That is welcome news to the program’s supporters. 


“This started as a grass roots effort,” said Scott Carlson, the state’s coordinator for problem-solving courts.  “For awhile it was the hot thing to talk about. It went to the back burner, but now (the discussion) is about making them better.” 

Drugs courts are considered one outlet to keep non-violent offenders out of the state’s overcrowded prisons and county jails.  An average of 1,200 people a year participate in the program, according to Carlson.  All but one of the state’s 12 judicial districts has a drug court in operation. 

There is a push to do more. The strategic plan prepared by Nebraska’s Administrative Office of the Courts in 2012 set a five year goal to make drug courts, and other similarly run problem-solving courts, a more stable and better-funded part of the state’s court system. 

“We operate well with the funding we have,” Carlson said, adding “there is always room to grow.”  Currently the state spends $2.1 million, mostly for staff to administer the program and work directly with participants.  A 2012 research study completed by the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center concluded “additional funding could be used to enhance programs across the state.”  The researchers found examples where staff and local judges used money out of their own pockets to support some elements of the program. 

The current budget also limits the number of participants.  “We do have programs where we have had to turn people away because we don’t have the capacity,” Carlson said. 

Working with drug court participants is a labor intensive process.  Staff remain in constant contact with those in the program.  There are checks at their homes and jobs to make sure they are where they claim to be. There are also regular surprise drug and alcohol tests. 

“It’s an extremely intrusive program,” Carlson said. “The supervision officers know what you are doing pretty much 24 hours a day.” 

The Public Policy Center analysis compared the per person/per day costs of Nebraska’s drug court with the cost of being sent to jail.  The study discovered spending for drug court was one-half to one-third of the cost of locking somebody up.  It costs about $92 a day to keep someone in state prison in Nebraska, and about $45 a day for a stay in a county jail. 

Judge Jodi Nelson with a Drug Court graduate. (Photo courtesy of Lancaster District Court)

Judge Jodi Nelson splits drug court duty with another judge in Lancaster County.  She says keeping people out of jail is a major goal and that alone makes the funding “money well spent in terms of what it could have been.”

Half the participants in Lancaster County successfully complete the program.  As a measure of its success, Nelson points to data showing a year after graduating from the program only five percent would be considered repeat offenders.  That includes being busted for DUI, drugs or any other felony. The rate was not that much higher for those who only completed part of the program. 

“It’s not soft on crime.  It’s smart on crime,” Paul Yakel said.  He is the drug court administrator for Douglas County, the first place in Nebraska to try the program. He has argued for years Nebraska needs alternatives to incarceration for those who show more inclination toward addiction than criminal behavior.

“That’s not the best way to do it,” Yakel said.  “They are going to get out in six months or two months or four months or whatever.  You’d better have a better plan than locking somebody up and hoping they are going to change.”

More than one graduate has become an advocate for the program.

Jenni Hoemann speaks at Drug Court graduation. (Photo courtesy of Lancaster District Court)

Jenni Hoemann said she doesn’t know “how long I’d still be using if drug court hadn’t stepped in.”  Hoemann started using meth when she was a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  At the time she was active in her sorority and a decent student.   She had no interest in drugs until she tried the meth her roommate at the time was selling.   “That escalated until I got to the point where I was selling drugs to support my own habit which ended up causing me to sell drugs to an undercover cop,” Hoemann said.

In many ways she was not a typical drug court participant.  A majority are men, often in their late twenties or early thirties.  Many didn’t complete high school and even fewer made it to college.

While individual participants are given specific goals and approaches to make the circumstances of their drug problem, the overall expectations are the same.  Everyone is expected to follow the rules, be truthful and stick to the strict expectations of the program.

“When I got into drug court I suddenly had all these rules in my life,” Hoemann said.  “The biggest thing it did for me was to make me accountable.  That was something. I hadn’t had to be accountable to anyone,” including her own family.

“It’s an extremely intense program,” Carlson said. “Some clients will tell you, ‘I would have just jammed out (gone ahead with) my sentence if I’d known it was going to be this difficult.’”

Central to the program are the weekly visits to the courtroom.  This is one common element of every drug court. 

In a recent session at the Lancaster County courthouse, about 30 participants gathered in Courtroom 37.  These proceedings are always open to the public.  Unless there is a work or counseling conflict, anyone in the program is expected to attend, stay, and watch the sessions while each person updates the judge.  There is an obvious atmosphere of mutual support for those all facing the same highs and lows. 

On this day, Judge Nelson is presiding.  For nearly three hours she stood toe to toe with each person. “It is very interactive between the participant and the judge,” Judge Nelson said. 

Judges get to know each person very well.  In a lot of cases it’s the first authority figure - including their own family - who’s ever shown any concern or supported their progress.

 “We talk about what they have done well.  We talk about what they maybe have not done so well,” Judge Nelson said.   “And we talk about what needs to happen to keep them on the right track and keep them moving forward."

Any one session might result in uncomfortable confessions, big laughs, painful tears and a round of applause from fellow participants when big goals are met, like a sobriety anniversary.

Breakdown of drug court participation by race. (Graph prepared by University of Nebraska Public Policy Center)

There are few Blacks, Hispanics, or Native Americans in this group, and that’s a pattern across the state.  In one of its more pointed suggestions, The Public Policy Center said Nebraska drugs courts need to increase the numbers of minorities participating, and improve their success rate when they do sign on.

From the start, one very tangible incentive attracts most of the participants, all of who were charged with a felony crime that directly or indirectly relates to their use or addiction of illegal drugs.  The felony charge is put on hold while they participate.  If they fail to meet the requirements, that charge can be put back in play.  For successful graduates, the felony is dismissed.  Judge Nelson said that is “absolutely huge for them.”

Hoemann, arrested just a few weeks after graduating college with a degree in Women & Gender Studies, faced the prospect of an education wasted if she’d done jail time.  Instead, as a drug court graduate, it “means you don’t have to report it on job applications,” she said.  “If you are not already a convicted felon it’s a pretty big deal to have that felony dismissed.” 

Nearly every graduate will say by time they graduate there is another benefit they did not recognize while trying to shake their addiction and bad habits.

The primary goal, according to program administrator Carlson, is “eliminating that cycle of addiction; that cycle of crime.” 

“The bigger thing is that they have gone through a program that has changed their lives and made them clean and sober, accountable, responsible and productive in the community,” Judge Nelson said.

It was Judge Nelson who used Jenni Hoemann as an example of how it’s all supposed to work. Hoemann now works for the county doing office work, is preparing for her wedding and is five years sober. 

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