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Johnson County Drug Court receives grant for employment-counseling services

BY BEN MARKS | OCTOBER 24, 2014 5:00 AM

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Come this fall, as a result of a federal grant, nonviolent criminal offenders will be given more opportunities to succeed.

Johnson County received a $192,528 grant on Thursday from the Department of Justice to aid in funding employment-counseling services for the Drug Treatment Court Program.

Drug Court is a federal jail alternative program designed to provide support to probation clients whose issues the government believes would not be properly addressed by being incarcerated.

“They may be in Drug Court for a theft, but that theft was because they were trying to get money for their substance abuse,” current program director and Assistant Johnson County Attorney Rachel Zimmermann Smith said.

Mickey Miller, the Johnson County grants and communications specialist, who wrote the current grant, said the purpose of the program is to address the issues such as substance abuse, which tend to increase jail recidivism rates. Drug Court does this through a strict 5-phase regiment that can last an average of 18 months.

In the program, participants meet weekly for performance reviews, receive encouragement from the judge, as well as other group members, receive mental health and substance abuse treatment, transportation assistance, domestic violence intervention counseling, and employment counseling services.

In 2009, Drug Courts in Johnson and Linn County received a federal grant to support employment-counseling services, which allowed case managers from Goodwill of the Heartland to work one on one with Drug Court participants. However, those services were ended in 2013 when the grant money ran out.

“In prison they’re not going to learn skills that are going to help them improve their lives,” said Carmen Heck, supervisor of the employment services program at Goodwill of the Heartland. “Whereas this program, if they really want to change they can learn those skills in a very supervised way.”

Now, after operating for almost exactly a year without those employment services, Johnson County has applied for and received a new and entirely unrelated grant from the Department of Justice to fund almost exactly the same employment services Heck oversaw in 2013.

The employment services are important, Heck said, because they not only help clients learn how to find, apply for and keep jobs, but advocates on their behalf to employers.

“We talk to [employers] about how they’ve participated in the program and are really trying to make a life change, explain what their skills are and work with employers till we find one that’s willing to give them a chance,” she said.
                                        
In the one year Drug Court’s employment services were unavailable, Rob Metzger, services manager for the Sixth Judicial District, said Drug Court saw client’s difficulty finding work increase, along with a drop in the quality of work and a higher turnover rate between jobs.

“These are great, capable people,” he said. “But because of their histories they haven’t maximized that. That’s what Goodwill does, is allows them to unlock their potential and really be successful as they can be.”

Although the grant will expire in two years, there is good news for the program. Linn County, who also lost their employment counseling in 2013, has recently secured state funding to resume services, which will also cover Johnson County after the current grant expires.

The funding for these programs is not cheap, however according to the Sixth Judicial District, the cost for community based supervision programs is much less expensive than housing an inmate, an average $1.88 a person a day compared to $55.

Since Drug Court was established in 2008, Metzger said that together Johnson and Linn County have saved roughly $5 million.

However, Miller said that even if the county didn’t save money, the program would still be worth supporting.

“These are not hardened criminals, they’re people who have an illness that has led them to some sort of criminal activity,” she said. “Does it benefit us as a society to just throw them in jail, or does it benefit us to provide treatment and help them become successful contributing citizens?”


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