Judge Jean Shepherd is retiring effective Jan. 11, but before leaving the bench, she’s intent on finishing a job she started two years ago.
Her task: Establish what would be the country’s third Mental Health Court for youth offenders, one dedicated specifically for kids and families in Douglas County.
“My plan is to get this started and implemented before I leave,” Shepherd told county commissioners Wednesday evening, disclosing her retirement plans.
Shepherd’s immediate plan — to secure a $50,000 federal grant, to be matched with in-kind contributions from the county — would create a specific docket in Douglas County District Court to handle cases involving youths who have mental illnesses or developmental disabilities.
A case, she said, might involve a 10- or 11-year-old kid with a mental illness, someone who might throw a chair at a teacher and end up facing a juvenile charge. The student would come before a judge, admit to the offense, and then accept a sentence that might include specific treatment programs, typically involving their families as well.
Offenders successfully completing such a program — which likely would start with weekly meetings with the judge, then continue through less-frequent follow-ups — would be allowed to withdraw their earlier guilty pleas.
“It’s like a diversion,” Shepherd said.
The program would be able to handle no more than 10 youths at a time, she said. The goal would be to reduce probation violations and otherwise cut recidivism rates by addressing problems through treatment programs, rather than occupying space on a court docket or in a room at the Juvenile Detention Facility.
As she learned teaching years ago in Wyandotte County, progress can be measured in small but significant amounts.
“For me,” she told commissioners, “success is one child a year.”
Shepherd indeed taught English at Washington High School in Wyandotte County before becoming an attorney and going to work in the district attorney’s office, then in private practice. She was appointed to the bench in 1984, and has gone on to dedicate much of her work to family law and juvenile cases.
She doesn’t plan to stand for retention, instead opting to retire — but not without making yet another push to stand up for youths who need help, to help steer them away from a path that’s not good for themselves, their families or their communities.
“Eventually, these kids will be in jail,” Shepherd said. “If we don’t catch it now … it just accelerates.”