From addict to all A’s: Drug court grad now inspires others
August 29th, 2014
Lincoln, NE — Tera Newcombe looked a little uneasy. She was smiling but definitely a little uneasy. She could be mistaken for someone about to be named employee of the month. Instead she was standing in a courtroom in O’Neill, Nebraska alongside Holt County Judge Alan Brodbeck. There are times Newcombe had been in deep trouble. Today, the judge explained, it was all good news after â€œa long journey.â€[audio:https://kvnonews.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Drug-Court-Grad-082914-KVNO01.mp3]
â€œThere are a lot of bumps and turns along the road,â€ Judge Brodbeck told her. â€œYou are here because of your hard work. You are a completely changed person, from when you came into this program.â€
Newcombe earned the right to have a felony charges dropped from her record, meaning she would not serve time in prison. She had graduated from the North Central Nebraska Drug Court. Like similar programs scattered across the state, the program provides non-violent offenders with an alternative to a long prison sentence.
â€œWhat we are giving you is something that most people at one point or another in their life would love to have but never get,â€ the judge said.Â â€œThat is a second chance.â€
The judge handed Newcombe her graduation certificate as a large crowd rose to its feet with applause. There were friends and family, past graduates, and some current participants in drug court hoping they will make it through the program as well.
When Newcombe first showed up in court four years ago she was a mess.
â€œI actually donâ€™t remember a lot of it,â€ she said, trying to recall the night that first landed her in jail in Ainsworth. At the time she was drinking heavily and developing an addiction to prescription drugs. In 2010 police in Ainsworth arrested her for making terroristic threats. Newcombe said it was about a week after she tried to stop the pills and liquor. â€œGoing through withdrawal is a horrible experience and it became too overwhelming,â€ she said.
It was Judge Mark Kozisek who brought Newcombe into the drug court program.
â€œAt first I did have mixed feelings about it and I didnâ€™t know what it consisted of,â€ Newcombe said. Â â€œIt really was my only option. My other option was prison and that didnâ€™t seem like much of an option for me.â€
Drug courts are nothing new. Theyâ€™ve been part of the legal landscape in most states for over 25 years. The common trait with all the courts is giving people with a substance abuse problem an alternative to jail if they have been involved in a non-violent felony. Participants are required to appear regularly before judges assigned to oversee their cases. There is a regimen of treatment services to end their addiction, random drug tests and home visits, and expectations to obtain a job and be involved in community service.
In short, in lieu of jail, participants are given the chance to prove to the court they can be better people and deserve a break.
Judge Brodbeck first faced off with Newcombe in his courtroom a year into her drug court obligations. â€œTera was not in very good shape,â€ he said the day following her graduation. Â â€œShe was not the person that you saw yesterday.â€
There is one staple of drug court many find especially difficult: tell the truth and admit to mistakes. For Newcombe, coping with both her addictions and anxiety issues, that requirement seemed torturous at times.
â€œSo it was kind of a rough start,â€ Newcombe recalled.
When convening drug court Judge Brodbeck calls on each individual to come forward where he is sitting at the bench.
â€œI always ask them if there is anything they want to talk about or report this week,â€ he explained. He remembered asking his standard questions of Newcombe early in the program.
â€œAnd she said, â€˜Well, what do you mean?â€™ Very defensive. Early on I think she struggled with any kind of communication you had with her,â€ Judge Brodbeck said.
It was a struggle for Newcombe.
â€œNot a lot that is kept in confidence,â€ she said. Â â€œThey go (through) every detail of whatâ€™s going on in your life so they know what needs work. You find that your life is pretty much thrown out on the table.â€
She explained because people dealing with addictions hide so much of their lives it makes being honest and forthcoming especially difficult.Â â€œIt feels intrusive at first,â€ she added.
At one point Tera fled the state to get married in Oklahoma. She came back and was given another chance but always seemed to be on the wrong side of the rules, according to Judge Brodback.
â€œThere was a series of times when we were sending her to jail on a regular basis,â€ Brodback said. In the program it’s important he and the case workers try â€œto figure out what this person is going to respond to so they wonâ€™t do this again. In Teraâ€™s situation, she didnâ€™t like going to jail, so jail was a good sanction for her.â€
Short stints in county jail kept Newcombe out of the state penitentiary. She went into rehab to sober up and to work with mental health experts on her anxiety disorders. Even as they offered help, she got angry with the judge.
â€œYou are angry because they are telling you to do something that doesnâ€™t even seem possible,â€ she said. â€œThe disease of addiction, before you know it, becomes a lifestyle and itâ€™s really hard to break. At first you really donâ€™t think itâ€™s possible.â€
The drug court support team, despite the setbacks, kept Newcombe in the program. â€œThere was something inside Tera, some flicker of hope, that you could sense, but just getting her past that horrible addiction that she had just took a lot of work,â€ Judge Brodback said. He noticed a change shortly after he told Newcombe it truly was her last chance before being sent to prison with her felony record intact. He says the next time he saw her there was a brighter outlook and a stronger character began to emerge.
Newcombe still isnâ€™t sure when things started to turn around.
â€œI canâ€™t say I know for sure when something clicked. I think it clicked a lot sooner than it showed that it did, if that makes any sense,â€ she said. â€œYou learn to live a different lifestyle and that doesnâ€™t happen overnight.â€
She would spend four years in a program that, ideally, should be completed in 18 months.
â€œFour years,â€ Judge Brodbeck said with some amazement in his voice. â€œI think that might be some kind of record.â€
Success stories like Newcombe convinced Judge Brodbeck that it is worth the significant time commitment it takes to concentrate on helping non-violent drug offenders.
â€œWe recognize that sending people to jail it protects society for a while but it doesnâ€™t generally change the person,â€ Judge Brodbeck said. Â Without the additional help of counseling and making lifestyle changes â€œthey come back out the same person.â€
The stateâ€™s judicial branch wants to expand the program. A review of the independently-operated drug courts will collect information about costs, methods of operation, training for judges and staff, the successes and the drawbacks.
Chief Justice Mike Heavican hopes the stateâ€™s lawmakers will give consideration to the courts as one way to reduce the population of the stateâ€™s correctional facilities.
â€œI think the legislature and other folks are going to be looking at us to expand, but as I said, we wanted to do what we are doing well before we branch out and also everyone needs to be aware that this takes money,â€ Chief Justice Heavican said.
The largest single expense for the program is the time judges put into tracking the individual progress made by participants, along with case workers, probation officers, and the cops involved in each case.
The chief justice was on hand for the drug court graduation at the Holt County Courthouse, telling the small audience he thought it was â€œwonderful to have successes from folks who were not productive at one part of their life and now are.â€
The only graduate this day was Tera Newcombe. She got a special medallion from the chief justice before Judge Brodbeck handed her a certificate noting her achievement.
Watching were some who had already completed the program and quite a few hoping they will make it through without having to return to jail.
Through tears, Newcombe spoke to them.
â€œTo those who are on problem solving court, it is a heck of an opportunity. So, use it while you can.â€
The audience stood and applauded.
After the ceremony Judge Brodbeck smiled broadly.
â€œWhen we see this, itâ€™s uplifting for us,â€ he told a visitor.
After a reception in her honor Newcombe appeared more at ease and relaxed. â€œItâ€™s emotional. It kind of causes you to reflect on where you were to where you are,â€ she said.
Asked where she would be had she not gone along with the regimented expectations of drug court, she thought for a moment.
â€œThere would be a relatively good chance I wouldnâ€™t be alive, would be my guess.
“Or there would be a chance that maybe I would have found help somewhere else. But I wouldnâ€™t be anywhere near where I am today as far as the successes and the goals I am working on. I donâ€™t know. I donâ€™t like to think about that too much,” Newcombe said.
She laughed nervously and said she just preferred to look ahead. The odds are good she will not face jail again.Â Research done on repeat offenders showed 4 percent of drug court graduates had a second run-in with the criminal justice system.
Newcombe is working on a college degree in human services. She doesnâ€™t volunteer the fact that so far sheâ€™s earned all Aâ€™s. She spends time helping others making their way through the program.
Graduation day also marked the fourth anniversary of her marriage; the one she fled the state for that almost got her thrown out of drug court and into jail. She walked away from the courthouse with her husband. Theyâ€™re planning the honeymoon trip theyâ€™ve had to put off for the past four very long years.
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