Life-changing drug court in Dubuque faces uncertain future - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Life-changing drug court in Dubuque faces uncertain future

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DUBUQUE (KWWL) -

One life-changing area program that gives repeat drug users a second chance almost disappeared this year - and faces an uncertain future yet again.

It's the Delaware and Dubuque County Drug Court, and it benefits taxpayers as well.

Drug court is an alternative to a prison sentence for non-violent, repeat drug users. Instead of spending time and taxpayer dollars sitting behind bars, drug court participants live and work in the community, all with ongoing treatment and supervision.

Drug court takes place Thursdays at 3 p.m. in the Dubuque County Courthouse. Typically, Judge Michael Shubatt presides over the courtroom, speaking with each of the dozen-or-so participants about their week and how well they adhered to program rules and worked toward their goals.

"Do you have much of a social network of people that are non-users?" Judge Shubatt asked one participant Thursday afternoon.

Participants meet with substance abuse counselors at SASC, Substance Abuse Services Center, throughout the week, working toward everything from getting sober and getting employment to healing strained relationships with family members.

"Takes a lot of hard work and it takes a lot of discipline," Shubatt told another participant as they discussed the offender's discouragement over paying off debt.

Some don't always have good news to report.

"You've made zero progress there," Shubatt told one man, discussing the participant's stay in a residential facility.

Others, such as Kelly Burke, have something to celebrate. The courtroom erupted in applause Thursday as Burke announced she's been sober for exactly 300 days.

Burke, now 33, started doing drugs when she was 16.

"I actually went to prison when I was 18," she said. "I did three years and then it kind of was like a repetitive thing after that."

She said the accountability and supervision of drug court has allowed her to turn her life around.

"I needed to be policed. I needed to be watched. I needed to have all my actions critiqued," Burke said. "I needed to go up to a podium once a week to say how my week was going so I didn't fall into my old patterns of behaviors."

Drug court needs funding to stay afloat, however, and therein lies the problem. In May, the program faced disappearing completely.

Bill Hickson is a deacon in the Catholic church and coordinator of the Jail and Prison Ministry through the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

"We discovered that the funding, the original grant that funded drug court, was about to run out at the end of the fiscal year, June 30, and this really gave us no time," Hickson said.

The ministry appealed to area parishes, and, in less than two months, area Catholics had raised the $45,000 needed to keep the program afloat - for one more year.

"What it really does for the community is keeps people working, gainfully employed as taxpaying, productive members of the community, and it keeps families together, rather than sending people away for incarceration," Hickson said.

The Dubuque and Delaware County Drug Court has been around since late 2008, funded by a federal grant through the Department of Corrections. Advocates, including Hickson, are working to secure funding again for this and many upcoming fiscal years.

"Prisons in Iowa are already overcrowded," Hickson said, "and if we can avoid sending people to prison through programs like this, it's a great value to the community as well."

Burke said she's happy, for several reasons, to have an alternative to another stay in prison.

"You have to want to quit doing drugs and you have to want to change your life," Burke said. "Otherwise it's never going to work."

For Burke, having her teenage son foray into the world of illegal drugs was part of a wake-up call.

"I can't be telling him he can't be doing things and checking him on what he's doing if I'm doing the same stuff," Burke said. "I couldn't be a hypocrite like that."

Burke's 17-year-old son starting experimenting with drugs when he was 15, she said. Through drug court, she now has the opportunity to provide more direct care for him.

"I have gotten guardianship back of my son since I've been in this program," Burke said. "He lives with me full time now."

In addition to having full guardianship of her son, Burke is re-establishing relationships with family members she'd pushed away and has full-time work.

"It doesn't take away the need to hold people accountable," Hickson said, of drug court, "but it does it in such a way that lives are preserved and strengthened, families are strengthened, and the community really is well-served by programs like this."

"Some people will be like, 'Aw, you're in drug court? That sucks,'" Burke said. "I don't think it sucks because not too many people have a team of people sitting, working for them and coming up with different ideas for things that they want you to do, and at first it seems really overwhelming, but once you get through it and you start plugging away at it, you see that different areas of your life start to change and you appreciate things again."

Burke has been in the Dubuque and Delaware County Drug Court since Dec. 17, 2012 and said she looks forward to continuing to live a productive life.

"Little hiccups in the way that you think could totally jeopardize your future," she said. "It's time to shift onto something else and be proud of myself again."

As of May, about 60 people since 2008 had participated in the drug court. 20 of those failed the program but the rest either had successfully graduated or were still participating.

For those who successfully complete the program, Hickson said, "their sentence is satisfied and they no longer have that prison sentence hanging over their head then. It doesn't mean their record is completely wiped clean, but it does give them the opportunity to avoid incarceration and then they continue with normal, productive lives in the community."

"One of the philosophies behind my Jail and Prison Ministry program is something called restorative justice and that's to try and repair the harm that's done to the community by crime and also the families and the individuals, the offenders themselves, and I think drug court is one of the best examples of a restorative justice program," Hickson said.

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