Pubdate: Fri, 30 Aug 2002
Source: Norfolk Daily News (NE)
Copyright: 2002 Norfolk Daily News
Author: Lori Pilger


GRAND ISLAND -- Jerry Watson knew things weren't working.

So did Teresa Luther and Connie Hultine and even Wendy McCarty.

It all started about four years ago in Grand Island, when more and more 
people like Watson, Luther, Hultine and McCarty started noticing a problem.

"The thing that really made an impact on me was we were arresting the same 
people over and over," said Watson, the Hall County sheriff.

Before becoming sheriff in 1999, he'd worked at the Grand Island Police 
Department for 11 years, incarcerating the same people only to see them 
serve their time and go back on the streets, committing the same crimes.

"Everything going on with these people was an addiction problem . . . We 
needed to attack the problem in a different manner," Watson said.

The so-called war on drugs that started in the '80s helped strike at the 
supply side of the equation, but the demand remained, he said. That's why 
it caught his attention when people started talking about starting a drug 

"I was just kind of showing up to see what it was about," he said of a town 
hall meeting the year before he became sheriff, which drew a record crowd. 
"It all started from there."

Watson started researching and reading more about the drug courts that were 
sprouting up across the country.

"It was amazing what I was seeing, and I got more involved," he said.

What he learned was that of the more than 100,000 graduates of drug courts 
since the first one started in Florida in 198, 70 percent subsequently 
stayed out of the judicial system, Watson said.

"There just aren't too many programs out there that can boast those 
numbers, and I said, 'Hey we need to look at this,' " he said.

Watson ended up taking one of the lead roles in the effort to form the 
four-county Central Nebraska Drug Court, which in May started working with 
individuals with drug problems. The participating counties are Hall, 
Phelps, Adams and Buffalo.

It was a challenge, at first, to come up with the needed funds to get the 
project started. But since then, the money has fallen into place.

The court has been awarded a $500,000 grant through the drug court program 
in Washington, D.C., and another $30,000 grant through the Meth Hot Spots 
for a computer system to network the four counties. Region III Behavioral 
Services earmarked $123,000 annually of the state's tobacco settlement fund 
for inpatient treatment programs.

Whatever the cost, it's worth it to get users off such drugs as 
methamphetamine that fuel crime, he said.

"The average drug user will commit an average of 63 crimes per year to 
support their habit," Watson said. "It also gets them their life back, and 
everybody comes out looking good on the deal."

The biggest benefit to the community is the potential for improved quality 
of life, he said.

Shoplifting, forgeries, theft of vehicles and burglaries have been on the 
rise in Grand Island, Watson said, estimating that 90 percent to 95 percent 
of them are done to support drug habits.

"Those are all things we want to go away. This methamphetamine, it's that 
ugly monster that's out there creating problems, and it needs to be 
addressed," Watson said.

'Whole-Person Approach'

Hall County District Court Judge Teresa Luther tells the people starting 
drug court that she's going to be all over their lives for the next 18 months.

People who plead guilty to drug-related charges in district court and have 
sentencing transferred to drug court have to appear in court once a week in 
the beginning, she said.

Supervisors meet with participants regularly. And at staffings before drug 
court meets, the volunteer group of law enforcement officers, prosecutor, 
treatment workers and educators get together in a closed meeting to report 
the progress or problems that week to the judge.

It's basically a "whole-person approach," said Luther, one of five judges 
involved in the drug court that covers two judicial districts.

She said the drug court wants to make sure all potential problems are being 
dealt with -- first the addiction, then such things as family 
relationships, employment and finances.

And if the individuals involved mess up, she can send them to jail on the 
spot. When a urine or blood test comes up positive for drug use, the judge 
can put them in jail for the weekend or longer.

"One of the reasons drug courts are successful, what they tell us, is that 
you have regular contact with the judge, you have immediate consequences 
for violations and you have supervision throughout," Luther said. "There's 
accountability built into the program."

In traditional probation, probation officers report violations to the 
county attorney, who may choose to file a charge relating to them. The 
probationer would have to appear in court to either admit or deny the 
allegation and either face sentencing at a later time or a hearing.

Luther said traditional punishments just weren't effective in treating drug 
users who continued committing crimes.

"They just weren't getting what they needed in prison or jail or on 
probation. Methamphetamine is a tough addiction, and it requires a more 
intensive approach than we have done in the past," she said.

That's why she joined the group of law enforcement and probation officers, 
treatment workers and education professionals that started meeting in 1998.

She said the goal was to find a way to end the cycle of repeat offenders in 
the system and help them become productive citizens of the community.

"When we first started talking about it, I think everyone recognized what 
we were doing now was not effective," Luther said. "Our caseload indicates 
that, and I think Norfolk's caseload indicates that, too."

She said there has been a great deal of support for the drug court so far 
and a lot of people willing to help, but there were some who had doubts.

"They weren't believers, but when you view the statistics, you just can't 
ignore it anymore," Luther said. "It's a very worthwhile cause. We need to 
spread the word."
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