A handful of participants in the Douglas County Drug Court program shared their stories with members of the Douglas County Criminal Defense Bar Association through a Zoom meeting this fall. All of them described the program as life-changing.
Douglas County launched Drug Court about a year ago in January 2020. It is a 14-month program for adults who have been arrested and charged with a non-violent felony offense and are having difficulty staying substance free.
To be eligible for Drug Court, participants must be a Douglas County resident, 18 years of age or older, admit to substance use and agree to cessation of use, have pending felony charges, and have no serious or persistent mental illnesses which prohibit participation in substance abuse treatment.
If participants successfully complete the program, charges are dismissed.
The charges for participants in the program include: drug possession of controlled substances, such as marijuana, heroin or methamphetamine; distribution of marijuana; trafficking contraband, and possession of drug paraphernalia. If they are terminated from the program, they would face Kansas Department of Corrections sentences ranging from 13 months to 50 months.
Soon after a newspaper article was published last year about the program, Drug Court Officer Shannon Bruegge received a phone call that she will never forget. It was from a mother whose son was in the Douglas County Correctional Facility. He had been in and out of different types of supervision in the criminal justice system, including state prison. “I need my son in this program. He’s a good kid, but he has a bad drug problem,” Bruegge recalled her saying. Her son became the first participant in Drug Court.
“Addictions can be so encompassing for the whole family in how it affects them, and so when he got in, his mother had hope and she was excited and appreciated that she didn’t have to bear all of that herself,” Bruegge said. “She just couldn’t believe that his treatment was paid for and that we would help him get into sober living. She was very grateful.”
Her son is now working two jobs, spending time with his three children, and on the path to complete the Drug Court in the spring. While in Drug Court, he has completed fatherhood classes. “I’m living my best life,” he said. “Life is good.”
At age 35, another participant is on track to earn a degree from the University of Kansas this semester. Before entering Drug Court, he said he was consuming hard drugs and committing petty crimes. “My health has vastly improved and I just don’t know where I would be without drug court – probably in jail, probably miserable,” he said. “I’m five months sober today and I feel like a new person.”
All of the participants said they appreciate the structure, goal-setting and accountability that the four-phase program provides. They must call in daily to see if random drug testing is required that day. During the first phase of the program, they are required to attend between 6 and 10 hours of treatment per week. They attend both group and individual therapy in addition to meeting with a peer support specialist. They report to court every week. During the second phase, they are required to obtain a job and find a sponsor or mentor. They continue drug treatment, drug testing and report to court every two weeks.
Treatment courts are designed to step down the structure as participants make progress in their recovery. “It’s a lot of checks and balances and it’s holding them accountable,” Bruegge said. “The focus is getting them the best foundation to build a strong recovery.”
For example, Bruegge said, participants are required to submit their weekly check stubs and hours they work. If they want to travel outside of the county, they have to submit a request and have a safety plan.
The mother of an 8-month-old child said Drug Court has given her the structure that she needed. When she shared her story, she had been sober for 162 days - the longest that she had been sober in 10 years. “Having to call in at certain times each day along with all of the people who are on the team and there for you every step of the way – has made the difference,” she said.
She said Drug Court has allowed her to be in her daughter’s life every day. Now, she also has a relationship with her daughter’s father and they are attending couples’ therapy. “I am able to be free, able to work, and able to live my life. I’m very thankful for it and excited for my future for once in my life.”
Drug Court is a multi-agency team effort that includes: Douglas County District Court, Douglas County District Attorney’s Office, Defense Counsel, Criminal Justice Services Adult Services, DCCCA, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, Lawrence Police Department and community partners. Douglas County District Court Judge B. Kay Huff presides over the specialty court in addition to her regular judicial duties.
When asked how the program is going, Judge Huff said, “I am proud of the progress our participants are making. This program is not easy, yet most participants are thriving. Month by month, one can see improvements in their health, their attitudes, and their ability to stand on their own two feet. They are reconnecting with family and tackling problems that addiction caused. The treatment team deserves a lot of credit.”
The Douglas County Commission approved funding for Drug Court, which has an annual budget of about $416,000 and can accept 15 participants.
With tears streaming down her face, a 28-year-old participant described the difference that Drug Court has made in her life. She was in and out of the criminal justice system in different counties and failing to meet regular probation requirements. She said she wasn’t ready to change and she thought nobody cared.
“Drug Court is different,” she said. “Everybody cares – the judge, the drug court officer. I can’t lie to them,” she said. “Drug Court has given me the opportunity to choose a different path and be the person that I want to be.”
** Story written by Communications Specialist Karrey Britt of Douglas County **