Judge Glenn Braun often gives drug defendants in his court the same lecture about the courthouse renovations completed two years ago.
“We made one big mistake in our remodeling. Do you know what that mistake was? See that door right there?” he says sternly, gesturing to the door those in the jail’s orange jumpsuits enter through. “We should have made that a revolving door instead of a secure door because I see the same faces coming in and you’re one of them.”
But starting today, the 23rd Judicial District’s chief judge will have very different talks with some of those convicted of drug possession or related charges.
Today marks the first day of Ellis County Drug Court, the first such specialty court in western Kansas, whose aim is to reduce the need for that revolving door.
Every two weeks, those sentenced to Drug Court will appear before Braun, not for judgment but for more of a conversation. In between appearances, they will be under strict supervision with drug testing and other requirements, with a goal of graduating from the program and beating the addiction that so often lands them back in court.
“The concept of just putting drug addicts in jail over and over again just isn’t working nationally, and in Ellis County our felony drug cases are up as well,” said Court Services Officer Teresa Greenwood, who is Drug Court coordinator.
In 2013, there were 91 felony drug cases in Ellis County, according to the Kansas Sentencing Commission. By 2017, that number climbed to 159 — a 42.7 percent increase.
Drug Courts began in 1989 in Florida to address the growth of drug addiction and jail overcrowding. Today there are more than 3,000 drug courts in the country serving 150,000 people.
The idea of drug court in Ellis County arose about five years ago, not long after Braun was appointed to the bench. He discussed the idea with John Trembley, director of Northwest Kansas Community Corrections, and they began researching to see if the number of cases here would support it.
Others also got involved, either on their own or through the discussions — members of the Hays Police Department and Ellis County Sheriff’s Office; Chris Lyon, assistant Ellis County Attorney, who will be the Drug Court prosecutor; Tom Drees, Ellis County Attorney; and officials involved with treatment programs.
The renovation of the courthouse, which began in 2015, put the plans on hold, however, as the courts were temporarily relocated. Once the renovation was complete, the discussion began again.
A Drug Court Team was formed and consists of Braun; Greenwood; Lyon; Curtis Brown,who will serve as defense attorney for all participants; Tess Bennett, treatment provider at Smoky Hill Foundation; Ellis County Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Shannon, Hays Police Department Investigator J.B. Burkholder, Trevor Roa and Erin Geist, intensive supervision officers with Northwest Kansas Community Corrections; and Paul Lucas of Appalachian State University, who will be the court’s evaluator.
Braun, Greenwood and other members of the team have been through training and visited Drug Courts in Lyon and Saline counties, and now are ready to begin here in Ellis County.
Many of those sentenced to Ellis County’s Drug Court will be those eligible for the state’s Alternative Sentencing Policy for Non-Violent Drug Possession Offenders, often called SB 123 in reference to the 2003 Senate bill that introduced it.
Under that law, offenders sentenced for a first or second possession are placed on probation with intensive supervision by Community Corrections that includes random drug tests and completion of a certified treatment program.
In addition, the Drug Court Team, which will meet before each session, can decide to include people who are charged with a non-possession crime that stems from an addiction.
For example, someone facing a burglary charge could be included if the theft was to support their drug habit. Or a person who travels to Colorado, purchases a large amount of marijuana and distributes it among a small circle of friends could also be included.
Drug Court is designed to give offenders a more active role in their treatment and provide the support many of them do not have in their lives.
“Some call them therapeutic courts, where instead of being adversarial it’s more conversational,” Braun said.
Drug Court participants will be required to attend court sessions — every other week at first, then monthly as they progress — and stand before Braun and update him on their progress.
He’ll ask what’s going on in their lives — why did they miss curfew or have a positive drug test, what kind of services or help do they still need. The team will also ask these questions before they appear before Braun, so he will already have some of that information.
“But this gives the defendant more of a, not a decision-making, but more direct input with the judge,” he said.
“I’m going to be able to say, ‘Hey, what’s going on, tell me about it. What happened that you were dumb enough to make that bad choice?’ ” he said.
The hope is defendants will realize Braun isn’t there just to put them in jail, but to help them improve their lives.
Through Drug Court, problems that arise with a participant can be addressed more quickly than through probation.
Braun said frequently when someone enters probation, he won’t see them again unless they have violations. As those reports go through the channels, it can be weeks before they appear in court again, by which time there might be a “laundry list” of issues.
“At that point in time, what’s my choice? You’re going to prison,” Braun said.
Participants will meet regularly with members of the Drug Court Team and address the issues quickly. And they will see Braun in two weeks or less.
One violation won’t necessarily mean going to prison. The program is designed with five phases, each with different requirements and benchmarks for the individual to meet.
Each phase requires court attendance, treatment, meetings with supervision officers, drug testing and a curfew.
Phase I focuses on acute stabilization and includes the benchmark of 14 consecutive days without drugs or alcohol and emphasizes addressing housing needs, a medical assessment and making changes in the people and places that influence the person’s choices.
Phase II addresses clinical stabilization and includes a budget assessment, recovery support group, and 30 consecutive days clean of drugs and alcohol.
As individuals progress, the phases offer more leniency such as encouraging positive social activities and a later curfew while offering more support such as addressing job training, employment and family support.
“It’s going to be staggered eventually. We’ll get to where we’ll have multiple people in Drug Court at various phases. Some may move on faster than others to the next phase of Drug Court,” Greenwood said.
Along the way, their achievements will be celebrated, she said.
Showing up in court, having a week of clean tests or getting a job can earn them $5 gift cards, for example.
“Some of those baby steps lead to the bigger goals — being clean for 90 days, holding down a job, some of those basic skills that they’re unable to do,” she said.
For those who complete the program, there will be a graduation.
“That’s going to be kind of a big deal, too. We’re going to have refreshments. They’re going to get a photo with the judge, and we’re going to celebrate them, celebrate their success,” she said.
The rewards are far from coddling the participants, however, Greenwood and Braun said; rather, it is providing them support they might not have.
“A lot of the clients we’re going to be working with don’t have anyone, don’t have a support system,” Greenwood said.
“Most of these folks had no direction in their lives, or the only direction they’ve had is to keep participating and doing what they’ve been doing, which is criminal activity,” Braun said.
“Nobody’s every patted them on the back. Little things like that can make a huge difference in how they see themselves and gives them hope for the future,” he said.
“Drug Court is actually going to require more from the participant than straight probation. It’s actually tougher,” Braun said.
And for those who just can’t, or won’t, complete the program?
“They go to prison. That is what it boils down to,” Braun said.
Braun and Greenwood recognize that, especially in the beginning, there will be those who fail.
“We’re going to stub our toes a little bit, and I’m expecting we’re not going to have the tremendous success that we might hope for. But if we’re successful with one, just one, the cost savings in and of themselves will justify what we’re doing,” Braun said.
The Ellis County Commission is providing $30,000 in seed funds, but Braun and Greenwood told commissioners they don’t expect to ask for more. Court and law enforcement officials don’t receive extra pay, and training was provided at no cost by the National Drug Court Institute. Greenwood is pursuing grants to help with future funding needs.
After the program is well-established, Braun and Greenwood plan to meet with organizations and employers in the community to garner more support and partnerships.
“I definitely want to get the community involved and see the benefit in our Drug Court and our work,” Greenwood said.
They also hope the program can expand throughout the 23rd Judicial District, which also includes Gove, Rooks and Trego counties.
They hope to secure funding for a part-time case manager to help participants with skills such as writing a resume and finding a job or managing their finances and to establish transitional housing for those defendants who are homeless.
Greenwood hopes to have a mentorship program.
“I’d like to have an alumni association for our little Drug Court where those who want to volunteer mentor new Drug Court clients,” she said.
It is that support that Greenwood and Braun hope will make the difference in Ellis County like it has across the country. According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, the average national rate for completion of treatment courts is nearly 60 percent, more than twice the rate of people on parole, and 75 percent of drug court graduates do not re-offend.
“They’re not evil people,” Braun said. “They are people that need someone to assist them in making better choices and decisions in their lives, and Drug Court is going to do that.”