Douglas County drug court program finds footing in 2020 despite coronavirus pandemic

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Douglas County Drug Court Officer Shannon Bruegge, left, and Judge Kay Huff, right, stand in Huff's courtroom in Douglas County District Court on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.

Despite the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, Douglas County’s new drug court program was able to find its footing in 2020 and began helping a handful of people who are working toward becoming drug free.

Douglas County District Court Judge Kay Huff, who presides over the program, told the Journal-World recently she was worried the stress of the pandemic would lead to the participants relapsing. But so far, that has not been the case.

“It was a concern of mine, and practically every drug court judge I talked to, that things would go off the rails because of COVID and the stress of that,” Huff said. “I have to say our participants have done very well, and they have said they are grateful to be sober during this and they feel they are at their healthiest.”

The drug court, which was launched in January 2020, serves as a diversion program for participants who are facing nonviolent drug-related felony charges. If they successfully complete the program, the charges are dropped. It is one of several programs the county has initiated in recent years to serve as alternatives to incarceration.

Now, about a year later, Huff and drug court officer Shannon Bruegge said the program has been working as intended, and its first prospective graduate is on course to finish the program in the spring.

The program, which can take up to 14 months to complete, consists of four phases, Bruegge said. The first phase starts with the most intense oversight and requires the participants to attend several hours of treatment and appear in court each week, among other things. Each subsequent phase decreases in intensity and works toward introducing the participants back into the community, such as helping them obtain full-time jobs.

Additionally, throughout the program, the participants can be subjected to random drug testing to ensure they are remaining sober.

Huff said she was proud of the participants’ ability to work within those rules so far, especially the first two people who entered the program and set an example of how to succeed.

“This is not an easy program. There is a lot of oversight, but a lot of accountability,” Huff said. “We started strong, and the first two people who really gave it a lot have been great examples for everybody else. They have been extremely dedicated.”

Bruegge and Huff said one of the drug court’s goals was to have 70% to 80% of participants successfully complete the program. So far, nine people have been admitted to the program, and seven are currently on track. Bruegge said one participant had been terminated from the program and another was set for termination. If the seven who are currently on track finish the program, it would have a 77% success rate.

While the program is off to a good start, it is still in its pilot phase. Douglas County has provided the program with about $415,000 of funding in its 2021 budget, allowing the program to admit up to 15 participants.

But whether it continues after this year is an open question, Bruegge and Huff said. They will likely need to present the program’s progress to county commissioners, who will gauge its effectiveness and decide whether to fund it in the future.

County Administrator Sarah Plinsky told the Journal-World in an email that those conversations were expected to be part of the County Commission’s annual budget process, which takes place in the summer.

Huff said she hoped the program would continue, noting that the participants had been doing well so far.

“They are working, they are sober and many of them spoke to the (Douglas County Criminal Defense Bar Association) and were quite positive about their life being changed for the better,” Huff said. “This is an opportunity for people.”

Despite the encouraging results so far, there have been bumps along the road for the program, the most obvious being the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March, the pandemic forced Douglas County District Court to delay hearings. That led to the participants not having face-to-face interactions with the drug court team and made it almost impossible for the court to test the participants to make sure they were staying clean. Because of that, the program stopped admitting participants for a few months as it worked to adjust to the new environment.

While the program eventually resumed, the pandemic has slowed its operations down. However, that has not stopped people from applying for the program. Huff said she had “a handful” of people who appeared in her court who were working to join the program.

Meanwhile, the program has seen some additional benefits. One of those is that the participants have been building stronger relationships with one another.

Bruegge said she organizes a monthly gift basket that the program participants have a chance to win. The gift baskets often include board games and other items that encourage the participants to be social with their friends and families. One of the participants has won the basket a few times but has given the prizes away to others in the program who hadn’t won it. Bruegge said that showed that person’s growth and how they are committed to helping out others.

“They are paying it forward to each other and investing in each other,” Bruegge said. “That is the most beautiful thing to see happen, and those things will continue to happen more and more often as the program grows and people grow in their recovery.”

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