100th Commencement Milestone Reached in Adult Drug Court 3/28/18 03/28/18 10:49:33 AM
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Milestone Reached in Adult Drug Court
By Lorraine Boyd
The Daily Record
The invitation arrived via e-mail. Every few months one appears, announcing another Douglas County District Court Adult Drug Court commencement.
But this invitation is special: it is announcing the 100th commencement ceremony.
The commencement will take place this afternoon at 2 p.m. in the Omaha/Douglas County Civic Center’s Legislative Chambers. Twelve participants will graduate today.
The Douglas County Adult Drug Court was created in April 1997, the first drug court in Nebraska, under the leadership of the retired District Court Judge James M. Murphy. Judge Murphy died last year knowing that his creation was thriving.
Judge MurphyThe Adult Drug Court serves a client population residing in the metropolitan Omaha area as well as in several smaller, surrounding communities.
The Drug Court’s objective is to divert non-violent, substance-using felony offenders from incarceration to a judicially supervised program of substance use services, case-management activities, and educational and employment objectives. A reduction in substance abuse is intended to lead to a decrease in the commission of drug related criminal offenses and, correspondingly, a reduction of the offender incarceration costs incurred by state and local government entities.
The Drug Court’s ultimate goal is to restore each Drug Court participant to productive citizenry in the community. No individual is excluded from the Drug Court program on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, or national origin, or sexual orientation.
The Adult Drug Court’s maximum capacity is 150 participants. The target populations are individuals who have been charged with felony offenses in the Douglas County jurisdiction and screen out as high risk/high need. This population is required to have a verbalized drug or alcohol problem, a history of substance use that is still ongoing, be willing to seek recommended treatment services, and adhere to court expectations. The working number of participants enrolled on any given day averages 100 to 150.
The Drug Court’s format, which started as a pre-plea drug court, in which defendants looking to enter drug court could do so without having to enter a plea of guilty on their charge.
In 2003, a second track with a post-plea format was added to the single pre-plea track presided over by one judge. Post-plea drug courts require the defendant to plead guilty to his/her charge(s) before being considering for admission. On July 1, 2007, Douglas County District Court converted its pre-plea drug court track to that of a post-plea format, giving Douglas County an adult drug court with two separate internal court levels, both of which were post-plea .
In May of 2009 the Adult Drug Court changed its structure one more time. Instead of three judges overseeing two distinct levels, the two levels were merged giving the county one adult drug court track, and a fourth judge was added.
Currently serving on the drug court are Hon. Gary Randall, Hon, Greg Schatz, Hon. Thomas Otepka, and Hon. Judge Leigh Ann Retelsdorf.
At the present time, the process of entering the Adult Drug Court starts with the felony offender’s written application/petition and approval by the Douglas County Attorney after a formal, face-to-face screening by the drug court office and subsequent determination of the candidate being of high risk/high need; review of the offender’s criminal history; review of the circumstances of the charged offense; and of course, approval by the Drug Court judge in the signing of the Admission Order. New as of January 2017, all participants who successfully earn a dismissal on their admitting felony charge(s) will have their felony(s) sealed per Nebraska Supreme Court revised statute 29-3523.
“The Douglas County Adult Drug Court program and process is supported financially by the Douglas County Board of Commissioners,” Drug Court Coordinator Paul Yakel, said, “and thus provides the opportunity for participation by highly committed and talented professionals of both the justice and the behavioral healthcare field. This team of professionals is charged with affecting change within a high risk/high need population of substance using felony offenders, resulting in lower criminal costs to all of Douglas County.”
“I was appointed shortly after Judge Murphy started the drug court and I got the opportunity to fill in for him, which was terrific! Being able to see what happens to these folks is amazing,” Judge Randall said.
“A couple years later [Judge] Greg Schatz and I got to start the post plea court (I think 2000) which allowed us to serve folks while “Murph” still handled the pre/diversion model in his retirement. The post plea clients at that time were higher risk/higher need. Today all our clients are high risk/high need and we have four judges who sit in drug court which meets every Tuesday and Wednesday.
“Drug Court gives these people their lives back. It’s without a doubt the best thing I get to do as a judge. I wish I could say they all make it, but most do. And the ones who don’t still, in large part, stay out of the system or commit less severe crimes in the future.
“Pregnant women have drug-free babies, people get jobs, families reunify, people find their self respect again and great things happen,” Randall said.
“Drug Court has become for me one of the most rewarding parts of my job, and we are all very proud of the program started here in Omaha by Judge Jim Murphy,” Schatz said. “The first such program in the state, now part of the criminal justice system across the state, has led to other problem-solving courts, all of which have proven to serve to rehabilitate low level offenders, reduce recidivism and save the tax payers millions of dollars.”
“I think Judge Randall touched all the bases. Drug Court is not in lieu of something we do as judges, it is in addition to our caseloads,” Otepka said. “The fact that our Drug Court judges have served in that capacity for so many years is because we are always inspired and touched every time we attend a Drug Court Commencement and see and hear our graduates so eloquently describe their journey.”
Retelsdorf agreed, saying, “It’s a remarkably uplifting process to help and assist people who have given up on themselves, then find themselves and move on with their life. It’s one of the best parts of my job.”
Yakel commented on the cost savings of the program. “Investment costs are defined as the total event costs which are incurred by participants during year one of their involvement with the drug court/CJS system as a result of their original drug/drug related arrest.
“1. The Annual investment cost savings for drug court participants compared to traditionally adjudicated and sentenced offenders is $1, 326,414.
“2. The average investment cost for a drug court participant is $4,803. The average investment cost for a traditionally adjudicated offender is $9,224.”
Therefore, taxpayers save $4,421 for each successful offender. “The annual cost savings for Douglas County Adult Drug Court is $3,400,800, or $11,336 per 300 drug court participants.”
Yakel continued, “Nationwide, 75 percent of drug court graduates remain arrest-free at least two years after leaving the program. The most rigorous and conservative scientific ‘meta-analyses’ have ALL concluded that drug courts significantly reduce crime as much as 45 percent more than other sentencing populations.”
Several other diversion courts have since been established in Omaha and other Nebraska cities.
Some Key Douglas County Court Statistics as of
March 28, 2018
1.) Babies born drug free to drug free mothers: 132
2.) Total active clients: 126
3.) Drug Court Graduates prior ceremony: 1,952
4.) Commencements held (including this one): 100
5.) March 28th commencement class size: 12
The next scheduled commencement is June 27, 2018.