Douglas County Commission hears success stories from specialty court programs

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Criminal Justice Services Director Pam Weigand listens as Judge Sally Pokorny explains elements of Douglas County's specialty court programs to the Douglas County Commission on Wednesday, May 15, 2024.

On Wednesday, the Douglas County Commission had a chance to hear success stories directly from graduates of the county’s two specialty court programs.

During a work session at Wednesday’s County Commission meeting, commissioners received a presentation on the Behavioral Health Court and Drug Court programs, designed as alternatives to the traditional court system. The programs are presided over by Judge Sally Pokorny and Judge Mark Simpson, respectively.

The work session didn’t just include information from Pokorny and Simpson about how the courts function, though — they also brought along stories from grateful program alumni.

Defense attorney Brenda Clary, who represents participants in the Behavioral Health Court program, read a statement shared with her recently by the first client she worked with as part of the program. Five years after completing the program, Clary said that client is now attending college and working full-time.

“I am the happiest and healthiest I have ever been, both physically and mentally,” Clary read. “I’ve discovered a level of stability I’ve never known before. Recently, I’ve been reflecting on how much life has changed in the past five years, and I’ve recognized that this growth would not have been possible without the Behavioral Health Court of Douglas County.”

Another graduate, Timothy Shoulderblade, told his story to commissioners in person on Wednesday. A graduate of the Drug Court program, Shoulderblade was formerly homeless and struggled with drug and alcohol addiction but has now been sober for well over a year. Since graduating from the program just last month, Shoulderblade told commissioners he’s found work with Artists Helping the Homeless and has begun a social work degree program at Haskell Indian Nations University.

Another individual who spoke Wednesday told commissioners about how her son benefited from the Behavioral Health Court, and said she felt more counties throughout Kansas should have programs like these.

Those stories drew emotional reactions from all three commissioners, who voiced their appreciation for those community members’ willingness to share them.

“I think so often what we work on here seems very policy-based, and it’s really great to hear stories that we can understand how it’s impacting members of our community, how members of our community are giving back to these programs,” Commissioner Patrick Kelly said. “I just want to applaud that — thank you for that gift today to us.”

Before hearing those stories, commissioners got a high-level overview of the two programs from Pokorny, Simpson, Criminal Justice Services Director Pam Weigand, Senior Data Analyst Matt Cravens and Criminal Justice Coordinator Katy Fitzgerald. Some of that overview included numbers — like the 145 individuals accepted to the Behavioral Health Court since 2018 and the 51 accepted to the Drug Court since its launch in 2020, or the 53% completion success rate for both court programs.

The group also explained its efforts to adhere to best practices for specialty courts, based on the standards of All Rise, a training, membership and advocacy organization dedicated to justice system innovation.

Next steps for the programs will include an upcoming two-part evaluation process, which Fitzgerald explained to commissioners. She said the county intends to complete two types of evaluations for each court, starting with a “process evaluation” assessing the extent to which the programs follow and implement research-based best practices. That evaluation process would take place between July and December this year.

The second evaluation, focused on whether the programs have delivered the intended services and had the intended impacts on participant outcomes, would take place in 2025.

Commission Chair Karen Willey asked about what costs might be associated with those evaluations. Fitzgerald said the two-part evaluation process would be contingent on funding in the county’s 2025 budget. She said the process evaluation portion comes with an estimated cost of $61,000, and she’s made a budget request for $150,000 overall.


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