An unusually high number of drug court participants went to jail from early this year for failing to comply with the terms of their rehabilitation.Midwest Nebraska Drug Court Administrator Steve Garcia says the bookings don’t necessarily indicate problems with the program.
In fact, Garcia is happy with the success of drug court.
“Drug court” is an intervention program for drug related criminals. The district court orders participants to enroll in the strict two-year plan to help them kick their addiction for the rest of their lives. If they finish the two-year program, their crime is expunged. If they fail a requirement – such as a urine test to detect illegal drugs – they go back to jail for a while.
Normally, one or two people over a two-week span in the program check into the jail because they are “non-compliant” and spend a couple nights there. But, over the three weeks in late 2016 and early this year, the number who failed spiked to 16.
“Most of it wasn’t so much non-compliance,” Garcia said. “Yes, we had a couple -- but we had some who were sanctioned previously and still had to serve some time in jail (which they do on weekends.)
“We don’t want them to lose their jobs,” he said. “Research has shown that it is more effective to put them in jail for the weekend or two or three weekends” than serve a 2-10 day sentence all at once.
However, Garcia said the Christmas holidays can present a challenge for drug court participants.
“It can be a tough time for those trying to get over their drug addiction. Unfortunately, people will relapse,” he said. “Obviously we are ready for that but we have to go ahead and sanction them. There has to be a natural consequence for their actions. However, we are not just putting them in jail and saying ‘OK, that’s it, goodbye.’ Instead, we make sure that we ratchet up counseling and supervision to get them back on track.”
Garcia said 39 people are enrolled right now.
“We are seeing around 70% of them completing drug court successfully,” he said. “But much more important than that, it’s not just completing drug court successfully. We want to track them after that. When they complete the program – that’s when the hard work starts.”
“We are having great success rates and seeing that the majority of them are not reoffending or coming back into the criminal justice system,” he said.
Although it often seems like there is no slow-down in drug problems, Garcia said the program is much better than just putting people in jail or prison.
“On average, it costs $3,000-5,000 a year to keep somebody in drug court and obviously it costs much more to keep people in jail or prison.”
There is a need for prisons, he said, but “if prison alone or jails worked, we wouldn’t have a drug problem,” Garcia said. “I am not cutting the jails or prisons down. Thank God we have them. We need them, but we want to build on what they do.”
Garcia said that ultimately, it is up to the individual to decide to make a change in their life. He believes drug court offers the opportunity to make that decision.
“If I had to use one thought, I would say we are offering them hope.” Garcia said. “I don’t want to seem all touchy-feely and make people think that drug courts are all Kumbaya or anything, but we are there to motivate -- to offer them hope that they can get off drugs.”
He said no one wants to be a drug addict.
“No one who is 12-17 years old says ‘when I grow up I want to be a meth addict.’ It is just one bad decision after another. We guide them, but also hold them accountable,” he said.
Garcia said the state wants probation offices to work the same way -- to work with non-violent individuals so they won’t reoffend, under changes to the corrections system that were passed last year by the Legislature.
(This report was published first in the Bulletin's print edition in January.)