Wholeness Healing Today

“Think Outside the Box – Drug Courts Work” by Guest Writer and Hall County Sheriff Jerry Watson

On a sunny June day in 1998, my soon to be Chief Deputy and I were fishing on a local lake when he broke the news to me that a Drug Court meeting was scheduled and my presence requested. I gave him one of those looks that you would give your wife when she asks you to help clean the house. My thought was another “touchy-feel-good program” that will be here today, and gone in a few years. Reluctantly, I attended the first meeting and to this day I appreciate that hot June day.

Six years have passed, and I find myself today on the governing board for the Central Nebraska Drug Court serving Hall, Adams, Buffalo and Phelps Counties. How did this transformation occur? Well it wasn’t difficult. After attending a few meetings and doing a little digging on my own, it seemed that this one was a no-brainier. Let me share with you a few facts that changed my mode of thinking quite abruptly.

Drug Courts were first started in the United States and have been around since 1989. One of the founders was Janet Reno, who started the program in South Florida. Since its inception, more than 400,000 participants have become graduates in the more than 1621 Drug Courts that exist across this country. Probably the most important statistic I found was that of all the participants entering into the Drug Court system, 70% successfully complete the program. Of those who graduate, 70% are staying away from a life of illicit drug usage and a life of criminal activity. What other government program exists that can demonstrate this type of success?

According to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service,(NCJRS), the average drug addict commits 63 crimes per year to support their addiction. Under our current system a typical drug-using offender spends an average of 3 months in jail, yet 24 months on probation and living in our communities. Also did you know that incarceration of drug-using offenders costs between $20,000 to $50,000 per person, per year? In Nebraska last year the cost was $27,934.00 per inmate. In contrast a comprehensive Drug Court system costs less than $2,500 annually for each offender.

These figures start to bring into focus the problem as it exists in today’s world. But let me give you a couple more quick statistics. According to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service in 1999, drug offenders accounted for 21% of our states’ prison population, and 61% of our federal prison population. Also in the year 2000, according to the National Drug Control Policy, Americans spent 64 billion dollars on illegal drugs. Are you starting to get a clear picture of the magnitiude of the problem?

How many of you readers have found yourself recycling your local criminals? It becomes redundant arresting, adjudicating, incarcerating and releasing. Over and over again and it doesn’t seem to make a difference; there is no deterrence, or at least it seems that way.

WHAT ARE DRUG COURTS AND HOW DO THEY WORK? Drug Courts are usually held weekly in a regular courtroom. Participants, after they are screened and qualify, must come to court weekly to start. (To qualify they must not have any type of violent criminal background or they can not be distributing or muling drugs.) Participants must plead guilty to the original charge, which is set aside pending the successful completion of Drug Court. If they fail, then sentencing awaits.

Participants must provide a minimum of three drug tests per week at supervision. They must attend AA. or NA. meetings weekly and also participate in a MRT program (Moral Recognition Therapy). If they don’t have a job, they look until they find one. They must keep this job for a predetermined amount of time to successfully complete the program. Additionally if they don’t have their GED, they must get it before graduating. Participants have to pay a weekly fee. In our court it is $25.00 or $1,800 over the entire program. If a participant falls along the way and a dirty test shows up, he/she can be sanctioned to spend time in jail and be demoted in the program. What is most important is that the sanction is immediate. They go to jail directly from the courtroom. Participants are held accountable through strict judicial monitoring.

According to NCJRS, Drug Court participants named three factors that led to their success in Drug Court programs: close supervision and encouragement by judges, intensive treatment, and ongoing monitoring.

With Central Nebraska Drug Court, we have four counties involved in this process. We have Prosecutors, Treatment providers, Judges, Probation, Public Defenders, Corrections Departments and Law Enforcement all working together from all four jurisdictions.

Although just getting started in March of this year, we currently have 18 participants inducted into the program, with a list of numerous invitations pending. We foresee upward to 60 to 80 people being served at one time in the four county area within the next few years.

What kind of impact will this have on our communities? Ask yourself how much petty larceny occurs within your jurisdiction? How many forgeries are your people working? What about criminal mischief and thefts from vehicles? How much of your allocated man-hours are dedicated to working these types of crimes? Beyond that, think of the impact this will have on insurance claims, and what about housing and recycling the offenders? Doesn’t it make sense to quite recycling these individuals?

I have heard from many members of our communities that they don’t support this because the offender does make a choice to continue using. True, the offender did make an initial choice to use. However, after a few times of using, the choice no longer exists. Think of yourself having to go without coffee or pop, or a smoker told to stop smoking immediately. This is a poor comparison because for the drug addict, especially the methamphetamine user, the urge is at least a 100 times stronger. We all can think of people who have gone into treatment for 30 to 60 days and come out only to return to using again. Why is this? According to a neurologist who presented at one of our Drug Court planning sessions, he demonstrated the effect that methamphetamine has on the brain. Do you realize that it takes a year before healing can even start to occur? After 18 months, in most cases, they can be considered to be over the hump, but still relapses can occur, depending on the offender’s choice of environment.

I think it is important to remember that drug addicts are people who have made poor choices and have evolved into takers from society. Drug Court’s main goal is to turn these people back into contributors to society~that they get away and stay away from the criminal justice system all together. It is time for law enforcement to step back and ask the question, “ In our war on drugs, how effective are we being? Are we making a difference when we arrest the major players supplying this poison to our communities?” You know as well as I that for every arrest you make, two more dealers move in and start selling.

We need to continue to attack the supply as we have been for the past several years. However now in addition we need to address the user, or the demand. It boils down to basic economics, if you cut off the demand, the supply will dry up naturally. If nobody is around to buy, to whom are they going to sell?

So I call on everyone to “ Think Outside the Box”. What impact would a program such as this have on your community? How much of your criminal activity is drug related? I really think we can make a difference with this type of program with everyone coming out on top. The offender, law enforcement, prosecution, the court system, our correction systems, and all taxpayers in our communities who support all the aforementioned are beneficiaries.

Feel free to contact me or any member of our Central Nebraska Drug Court for more information. We invite anyone who is interested to attend our sessions to see what it is all about. You can contact me at the Hall County Sheriff’s Office at (308) 385-5200 or at jerryw@hcgi.org.

“Think Outside the Box” was previously published in the Nebraska Sheriffs Magazine, Fall 2002 Issue.

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  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner

  • Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.


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