CENTRAL CITY, Neb. (AP) — The problem-solving court of Hamilton and Merrick counties held its first graduation ceremony at the Merrick County Courthouse in Central City.

Five people between the ages of 21 and 39 had criminal charges dismissed at the ceremony on Jan. 31, presided over by District Court Judge Rachel Daugherty of District 5.

The Fifth Judicial District was the last Nebraska district to implement a problem-solving court or drug court.

The Fifth District's problem-solving court covers Hamilton, Merrick and York counties. Hamilton and Merrick run a joint program. The York County program had its first graduate in December.

The program, operated through District 5 Probation, was begun by Daugherty and fellow District 5 Court Judge James Stecker. Stecker, whose duties include York County, is a Grand Island native.

The five people who graduated Wednesday all had addiction problems.

Going through problem-solving court requires 18 months to two years. During the first phase, the participants meet once a week in a courtroom with one of the judges. They're tested for drugs and alcohol at least three times a week. That phase typically lasts three months but could go longer.

"I told them that every time they saw the whites of my eyes, I was going to test them," said Cindy Betka, who was hired to start the problem-solving court in July 2015.

The participants have to either be involved in treatment or employed.

"So a lot of them go to halfway houses," Daugherty told The Grand Island Independent .

Goodwill and Hope Harbor have helped tremendously, she said.

If the individuals test positive, they usually spend a night in jail.

In Phase 2, they come every other week, but they continue to be drug tested three times a week. During Phase 3, they meet once a month.

In order to graduate, participants have to remain clean for a minimum of six months.

Some people think problem-solving court is a fairly painless way to avoid serving time, Betka said.

But if you understand the program, you'll see that it's not an easy way out, she said. It's "really difficult" and it's worthwhile.

Daugherty believes it's an "incredible" program.

"We really had concerns about how it would work geographically, because we're so spread out," she said. "We problem-solve those issues just like the participants problem-solve their issues."

The work of the five students heartened Betka.

"They did more than go through the motions. They have invested in a lifestyle change, and it's so rewarding," she said. "It's such an honor for me to see their success."

Betka likes the opportunity the program provides. A therapist with 30 years of experience in substance abuse, she said she believes in change and she believes in people.

The county attorney offices decide who to refer to the program.

"We try to take people who are high-risk and high-need that need more services than what probation has to offer," Daugherty said.

The program's responsibilities include homework.

Participants might have to take a relapse prevention class. "If they have children, we often require them to do a parenting class," Daugherty said.

They take moral recognition therapy, an extensive class that involves community service.

"Each of these participants chose to do a community service project," she said.

During the weekly meetings, the judges and coordinators talk to the participants.

"You try to stay in contact with them so that you can sense if things are not going well," Daugherty said.

As problem-solving court coordinator, Betka talked to each of them almost on a daily basis.

"We try to structure more than 75 percent of their time," she said. "If they're not working, they're volunteering." They might be in treatment or mental health counseling.

If there are problems, the administrators look for way to help them succeed.

Goodwill provides budgeting services. Mental health services are also available.

"So we try to look to the community resources that we already have," Daugherty said. "It's a little harder in our communities because there's not a lot within Central City or Aurora. But we're close enough to Grand Island that we can utilize those services."

Problem-solving court uses no tax money, other than that used by probation employees, he said.

Over the course of the program, each participant pays $1,500 to $2,000 in various fees.

That money is used mostly to buy incentives for the participants and for training.

The problem-solving court took its first participant in January 2016. He was one of the people who recently graduated.

Betka, who lives in Geneva, worked for District 5 Probation until July, serving as problem-solving court coordinator. She is now a therapist in private practice.

The problem-solving court is growing. There are now 30 participants between the three counties.

"It clearly is far more successful than incarcerating people," Daugherty said.

Oftentimes, inmates aren't in jail long enough to get the treatment they need.

Because it's more of a hands-on approach, problem-solving court ensures that they get that treatment, Daugherty said.

It's pretty well-documented that problem-solving court helps reduce recidivism, said Benjamin Dennis, deputy county attorney for Hamilton and York counties.

The program keeps people out of the traditional probation system, as well as jails and prison, "which saves the state a lot of money," Dennis said.

Turning people into productive members of society is a "huge net positive" for the participant, "whose life changes in a significant way," he said. They're employed and they may get children back who have been in the state system.

The care of children is one of the issues related to parents who have substance abuse problems.

"So we're rectifying lives and also saving the county and the state money in the long term," Dennis said.

In a time of budget problems, government is "trying to look at maybe nontraditional ways of handling crime. So I think something like this is much-needed and very effective," he said.


Information from: The Grand Island Independent, http://www.theindependent.com