Ever-increasing numbers of drug crimes and arrests in Lincoln County demonstrate the reach of drugs and drug-related crimes.
In June, the print edition of the North Platte Bulletin profiled 13 young men who were arrested for drug crimes and/or thefts in a report, entitled Men, Drugs and Thefts.
That was far from the end of the arrests. Just a couple weeks later, between June 25-July 1, eight people were arrested or sentenced in North Platte on drug related charges.
Currently, there are 103 prisoners in the Lincoln County Jail. Many have been there before. All too often, drugs are a factor.
“I’d bet 80-90 percent of inmates who return to jail got in trouble again because of drug or alcohol abuse,” Chief Deputy Sheriff Ronald Kramer said.
Not just meth
It’s not just meth, Kramer said. A drug user might smoke marijuana in the morning, take meth in the afternoon and toss back some pills at night.
“It’s a cocktail of drugs,” Kramer said. “It’s a heck of a lifestyle.”
Drug users come from all backgrounds. Many of them believe that they can control their use. Some do, but “once they start shooting meth, it’s over,” said Sgt. John Davis of the sheriff’s office.
And, a meth habit usually leads to theft.
“Their whole mind set changes,” Davis said. “They become very good at manipulating people and situations. They have to, to support their habit. And then, paranoia sets in.”
Davis said sheriff’s investigators recently found key evidence in a rash of burglaries and safe-jackings because one of the suspects thought he was being followed, so he tossed a computer and gun out the window of a car.
His companion thought his drug buddy tossed cash out the window, and jotted down the location on a piece of paper. Investigators found the notation, went to the scene and found the computer and gun.
If caught, drug abusers often become relatively secure in the routine of jail, where they receive basic care and forced sobriety. but when they get out, they start using again, which leads to more thefts and violent crimes.
Breaking the cycle of addiction and repeat crimes is all-too-rare, but it can be done.
“I know a man who served time in federal prison for alcohol-related assaults, and he has completely turned his life around,” Chief Deputy Kramer said. “A lot of these guys don’t think they can get a job, but they can. This gentleman lost his marriage, lost several jobs and nearly died. He spent a year in the pen for domestic assault. But when he got out, he made an impressive turnaround.”
To help addicts change their ways, counseling programs are routinely held at the Lincoln County jail. Lutheran Family Services holds sessions three times a week. The course for each prisoner lasts six weeks.
Hopefully, the inmates get the message that they can change their lives.
“At some point, something might stick,” Kramer said. “We make sure they are exposed to it, but they have to make up their mind to change. We can’t force them; all we can do is give them opportunity.”
During the last 12 months, 84 inmates entered the jail’s counseling sessions, but only 34 finished the six-week program in that time.
Kramer said that’s not all that low of a rate, considering the number of prisoners who leave jail -- when they are sentenced, bailed out or transferred.
In September 2011, drug court became an option -- a two-year program aimed at rehabilitation.
Only non-violent drug offenders are eligible for the program, many of whom are in jail for the first time. They are referred to drug court by the county attorney, reviewed by a district court judge and sentenced to a rigorous program of counseling, work, tests and reports.
They pay some of the costs out of their own pocket. And, if they finish the two-year program, their crime is expunged. But if they fail, they start all over or go to jail.
“You can’t fool it,” Kramer said. “It’s rigorous.
Sheriff Jerome Kramer said drug court inmates don’t "get an inch."
“They have to work,” he said. “They have to go to counseling. They don’t get bored. If they are bored, that’s when they start using again.”
The sessions are designed to show the accused how and why they fail, and how and why to succeed.
The years-long length of the program provide time for treatment to successfully take hold, and is a stringent test of the resolve of members.
Signs of success
The program is showing signs of success in Lincoln County, Midwest Nebraska Drug Court Coordinator Steve Garcia said.
Currently there are 25 people in the program in Lincoln County, Garcia said. There are no graduates yet, but some are very close to the finish line.
Defense attorneys and prosecutors alike are enthused about drug courts.
“We all have seen how offenders come out of the corrections system and repeat the same behavior,” Lincoln County Public Defender Robert Lindemeier said, “especially the ones that come out and are not on parole. They have no supervision and fall right back into addiction and criminal behavior.”
North Platte attorney Russ Jones said drug courts are progressive.
“It allows an alternative type of justice that is effective and in the best interest of the families and all others involved -- and society in general,” Jones said.
County Attorney Rebecca Harling has been instrumental in the early success and Lincoln County District Judge Donald Rowlands is a valuable supporter, Garcia said.
District Judge James Doyle (of Lexington) of the 11th Judicial District oversees the program and “he is a great judge for the job,” Garcia said.
Doyle takes time to talk to members, show real concern and empathy for them, Garcia said.
“He truly wants them to know someone is noticing what they have accomplished,” he said. “He (Doyle) makes sure they know they will have the support and acceptance of their community. However, he expects them to be accountable and show effort.”
If a drug court member does not have a high school diploma, they are required to get their GED while in the program. Everyone is required to get and hold a job.
Members pay a $100 a month fee. If they fail and go back to jail, they pay a $14 a day for their time behind bars.
Sanctions for failure also include other assignments. One member, a college student, was assigned a 40-page report on the hows and whys of her mistakes, on what is available for help, and the causes of the fallbacks, Garcia said.
Members are closely monitored and held accountable. In turn, they are praised for success -- recognized with certificate ceremonies, award coins, gifts made by other members and moral support from all involved.
The program is in four-phases.
To move on from each phase, members must stick to individual schedules, test clean and show they are making changes.
Each phase can last longer than the minimum period. Failing during any phase will result in sanctions -- such as serving jail time, tougher requirements and possibly demotion back the start of a lower phase.
The first phase is the toughest and lasts at least four months. During the first phase, members must attend three support sessions each week, be randomly tested and adhere to a 9:30 p.m. curfew.
If they do not have a job, they must perform 30 hours a week of community service. Members are required to attend all drug court sessions in the county.
To be promoted to phase 2, a member must have tested clean for at least 60 days. IN phase 2, random tests drop to 2-3 times a week and the curfew is extended to 10:30 p.m. But the treatment and counseling requirements stay the same.
Phase 3 is a transition period for members to eventually get out of drug court. It lasts a minimum of 7 months with an 11:30 p.m. curfew.
Phase 3 members endure fewer random tests but must show they are still making positive lifestyle changes. All incurred fees in the program must be paid to date.
Phase 4 lasts at least five months. There are no more court hearings, fewer random tests, no calls to check in, no curfew.
Members must create a detailed written relapse plan, showing how they would avoid relapse or deal with it if it occurs. That can and usually is a long, detailed document requiring a great deal of effort.
When someone finishes, their district court cases are expunged. A graduation ceremony is held. It is a festive occasion recognizing and rewarding them for their efforts.
Garcia said the program is also cost effective.
On average, it costs $36,000 a year to keep someone in the penitentiary and $26,000 a year per person in a county jail.
The drug court program costs much less, on average only $5,000 per year, and some of that is offset by the fees paid by members.