Funding a drug court is the next step for Douglas County’s incarceration alternatives, DA tells commissioners
photo by: Sara Shepherd
Story updated at 3:03 p.m. Monday, July 1:
The Douglas County district attorney says his office already has programs successfully diverting numerous simpler cases from court.
Taking those efforts to the next level won’t be as simple or cheap.
“We’re getting down to the hard cases,” District Attorney Charles Branson said.
Creating a drug court may be expensive and resource-heavy, but it’s a needed next step toward getting more people out of the criminal justice system, Branson told county commissioners Monday morning during a budget hearing for his office.
The County Commission is weighing whether to include approximately $420,000 in the county’s 2020 budget to create a drug court. The so-called specialty court is tentatively envisioned to start as a pilot program serving 15 nonviolent drug offenders but could expand in future years, depending on need.
Participants would meet with support staff for accountability and submit to random drug tests. Those who successfully complete the multiphase program would get their criminal charges dropped.
Commissioners were expected to arrive at a recommended countywide budget following additional budget deliberations Monday, Wednesday and Monday, July 8.
“We have implemented a lot of programs over the last several years, and we have moved a lot of people out of the criminal justice system,” Branson said. “Most of those have been easy moves.”
Examples include a special women’s diversion program and behavioral health court, the county’s first specialty court, he said.
Now, they’re hitting tougher cases — cases of defendants who require more work, more supervision and ultimately more money to manage through efforts to get them out of the system without convictions or lengthy jail stays.
Although the DA’s office has largely absorbed staff and other costs to run those programs, Branson said it’s not going to be able to do the same for a drug court.
“We’re spread too thin,” Branson said.
Currently, Branson said he spends about a day a week running the women’s diversion program himself. He said Assistant District Attorney Mark Simpson spends about a day and a half per week handling behavioral health court, on top of his normal criminal caseload.
Branson is asking for money to fund an additional full-time assistant district attorney and a trial assistant to run drug court and take over the other specialty programs.
In addition to behavioral health court and the women’s diversion program, those include an enhanced diversion program for defendants who have higher-level charges — including some felonies — or other special circumstances and need more intensive supervision to succeed at completing their diversion agreements, Branson said.
Though the enhanced diversion program already is up and running, Branson said that with additional staff it could be expanded to serve perhaps twice as many defendants. Currently there are about 12 participants at any given time, he said.
In the county budget, the estimated $420,000 for drug court would be split between the DA’s office and the office of Pam Weigand, director of Criminal Justice Services. Weigand also is chair of the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
With aforementioned alternatives to incarceration programs still so new, whether they actually work remains to be seen, Branson said. For example, it’s too soon to calculate long-term recidivism rates among participants.
“Everybody’s gambling a little bit that this is going to make long-standing differences,” Branson said. “I think so, but the crystal ball’s a little foggy that far out.”
— Editor’s note: This article has been updated from a previous version.