Nebraska’s problem-solving courts are attracting the interest of state policy makers looking for alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders. The story of one recent graduate provides a look at why they are viewed as a successful enterprise.
Tera Newcombe looked a little uneasy. She was smiling but definitely a little uneasy. She could be mistaken for someone about to be named employee of the month. Instead she was standing in a courtroom in O'Neill, Nebraska alongside Holt County Judge Alan Brodbeck. There are times Newcombe had been in deep trouble. Today, the judge explained, it was all good news after “a long journey.”
“There are a lot of bumps and turns along the road,” Judge Brodbeck told her. “You are here because of your hard work. You are a completely changed person, from when you came into this program.”
“What we are giving you is something that most people at one point or another in their life would love to have but never get,” the judge said. “That is a second chance.”
The judge handed Newcombe her graduation certificate as a large crowd rose to its feet with applause. There were friends and family, past graduates, and some current participants in drug court hoping they will make it through the program as well.
When Newcombe first showed up in court four years ago she was a mess.
“I actually don’t remember a lot of it,” she said, trying to recall the night that first landed her in jail in Ainsworth. At the time she was drinking heavily and developing an addiction to prescription drugs. In 2010 police in Ainsworth arrested her for making terroristic threats. Newcombe said it was about a week after she tried to stop the pills and liquor. “Going through withdrawal is a horrible experience and it became too overwhelming,” she said.
It was Judge Mark Kozisek who brought Newcombe into the drug court program.
“At first I did have mixed feelings about it and I didn’t know what it consisted of,” Newcombe said. “It really was my only option. My other option was prison and that didn’t seem like much of an option for me.”
What's expected in Drug Court?
The National Association of Drug Court Professionals lists five basic elements of a successful program.
For a minimum term of one year, participants are:
- provided with intensive treatment and other services they require to get and stay clean and sober;
- held accountable by the Drug Court judge for meeting their obligations to the court, society, themselves and their families;
- regularly and randomly tested for drug use;
- required to appear in court frequently so that the judge may review their progress; and
- rewarded for doing well or sanctioned when they do not live up to their obligations.
In short, in lieu of jail, participants are given the chance to prove to the court they can be better people and deserve a break.
Judge Brodbeck first faced off with Newcombe in his courtroom a year into her drug court obligations. “Tera was not in very good shape,” he said the day following her graduation. “She was not the person that you saw yesterday.”
There is one staple of drug court many find especially difficult: tell the truth and admit to mistakes. For Newcombe, coping with both her addictions and anxiety issues, that requirement seemed torturous at times.
“So it was kind of a rough start,” Newcombe recalled.
When convening drug court Judge Brodbeck calls on each individual to come forward where he is sitting at the bench.
“I always ask them if there is anything they want to talk about or report this week,” he explained. He remembered asking his standard questions of Newcombe early in the program.
“And she said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ Very defensive. Early on I think she struggled with any kind of communication you had with her,” Judge Brodbeck said.
It was a struggle for Newcombe.
“Not a lot that is kept in confidence,” she said. “They go (through) every detail of what’s going on in your life so they know what needs work. You find that your life is pretty much thrown out on the table.”
She explained because people dealing with addictions hide so much of their lives it makes being honest and forthcoming especially difficult. “It feels intrusive at first,” she added.
At one point Tera fled the state to get married in Oklahoma. She came back and was given another chance but always seemed to be on the wrong side of the rules, according to Judge Brodback.
“There was a series of times when we were sending her to jail on a regular basis,” Brodback said. In the program it's important he and the case workers try “to figure out what this person is going to respond to so they won’t do this again. In Tera’s situation, she didn’t like going to jail, so jail was a good sanction for her.”
Short stints in county jail kept Newcombe out of the state penitentiary. She went into rehab to sober up and to work with mental health experts on her anxiety disorders. Even as they offered help, she got angry with the judge.
“You are angry because they are telling you to do something that doesn’t even seem possible,” she said. “The disease of addiction, before you know it, becomes a lifestyle and it’s really hard to break. At first you really don’t think it’s possible.”
The drug court support team, despite the setbacks, kept Newcombe in the program. “There was something inside Tera, some flicker of hope, that you could sense, but just getting her past that horrible addiction that she had just took a lot of work,” Judge Brodback said. He noticed a change shortly after he told Newcombe it truly was her last chance before being sent to prison with her felony record intact. He says the next time he saw her there was a brighter outlook and a stronger character began to emerge.
Newcombe still isn’t sure when things started to turn around.
“I can’t say I know for sure when something clicked. I think it clicked a lot sooner than it showed that it did, if that makes any sense,” she said. “You learn to live a different lifestyle and that doesn’t happen overnight.”
She would spend four years in a program that, ideally, should be completed in 18 months.
“Four years,” Judge Brodbeck said with some amazement in his voice. “I think that might be some kind of record.”
Success stories like Newcombe convinced Judge Brodbeck that it is worth the significant time commitment it takes to concentrate on helping non-violent drug offenders.
“We recognize that sending people to jail it protects society for a while but it doesn’t generally change the person,” Judge Brodbeck said. Without the additional help of counseling and making lifestyle changes “they come back out the same person.”
The state’s judicial branch wants to expand the program. A review of the independently-operated drug courts will collect information about costs, methods of operation, training for judges and staff, the successes and the drawbacks.
Chief Justice Mike Heavican hopes the state’s lawmakers will give consideration to the courts as one way to reduce the population of the state’s correctional facilities.
“I think the legislature and other folks are going to be looking at us to expand, but as I said, we wanted to do what we are doing well before we branch out and also everyone needs to be aware that this takes money,” Chief Justice Heavican said.
The largest single expense for the program is the time judges put into tracking the individual progress made by participants, along with case workers, probation officers, and the cops involved in each case.
The chief justice was on hand for the drug court graduation at the Holt County Courthouse, telling the small audience he thought it was “wonderful to have successes from folks who were not productive at one part of their life and now are.”
The only graduate this day was Tera Newcombe. She got a special medallion from the chief justice before Judge Brodbeck handed her a certificate noting her achievement.
Watching were some who had already completed the program and quite a few hoping they will make it through without having to return to jail.
Through tears, Newcombe spoke to them.
“To those who are on problem solving court, it is a heck of an opportunity. So, use it while you can.”
The audience stood and applauded.
After the ceremony Judge Brodbeck smiled broadly.
“When we see this, it’s uplifting for us,” he told a visitor.
Newcombe (r) accepts a ceremonial coin from Nebraska Chief Justice Mike Heavican. (Photo courtesy Janet Bancroft)
Asked where she would be had she not gone along with the regimented expectations of drug court, she thought for a moment.
“There would be a relatively good chance I wouldn’t be alive, would be my guess.
"Or there would be a chance that maybe I would have found help somewhere else. But I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am today as far as the successes and the goals I am working on. I don’t know. I don’t like to think about that too much," Newcombe said.
She laughed nervously and said she just preferred to look ahead. The odds are good she will not face jail again. Research done on repeat offenders showed 4 percent of drug court graduates had a second run-in with the criminal justice system.
Newcombe is working on a college degree in human services. She doesn’t volunteer the fact that so far she’s earned all A’s. She spends time helping others making their way through the program.
Graduation day also marked the fourth anniversary of her marriage; the one she fled the state for that almost got her thrown out of drug court and into jail. She walked away from the courthouse with her husband. They’re planning the honeymoon trip they’ve had to put off for the past four very long years.