Reentry program helps Nebraska women avoid rearrest

Lancaster Community Corrections expanded the reentry program which includes therapy, substance-abuse treatment, and learning life skills with a $2M federal grant

By Margaret Reist
Lincoln Journal Star, Neb.

LINCOLN, Neb. — Four years ago, methamphetamine took hold of Krystal Peters and refused to let go, sending her into a freefall that eventually landed her in a Lancaster County Jail cell — and ultimately on a path to recovery.

"It only took me about three years to throw my life away a few different times," said the 28-year-old woman, now 16 months clean. "That's the nature of the beast."

The grant-funded reentry program for men and women is voluntary and designed for those convicted of nonviolent offenses.
The grant-funded reentry program for men and women is voluntary and designed for those convicted of nonviolent offenses. (Lancaster County DOC / Facebook)

She'd become addicted to meth in 2018 and two years later was in and out of jail on theft and possession charges — two of them felonies, all of them related to her drug use.

Ultimately, prosecutors reduced the felonies to misdemeanors and the judge sentenced her to jail time on four charges, telling her she'd blown a chance at probation by skipping an earlier sentencing hearing.

"From beginning to end, I'd really just thrown it all away," she said.

Except for this time, she had a chance to throw out the bad and rebuild the good.

She'd been in jail for three months when Lancaster County Community Corrections officials came to her with a proposition: Peters could be part of a reentry program, serving her sentence on house arrest as part of an intensive program to help her turn her life around.

She had a decision to make: If she stayed in jail, she'd earn good time and get out earlier. If she participated in the reentry program she'd be out of jail but would have to serve out the remainder of the entire 395-day sentence. She chose the latter.

"I took the opportunity to do this program because I didn't want to walk back into a life that didn't offer me anything good," she said. "I wanted to be better, you know? ... I didn't start getting clean until I was in jail. I'd made (other) attempts to stop. I saw an opportunity to help me thrive outside a life of crime."

Peters is one of 29 women who've taken advantage of that opportunity since Lancaster Community Corrections got a $2 million federal grant to expand a reentry program it started for men in 2017.

Of those women, 11 have graduated, six are active and 12 were removed for not complying with conditions of the program. None of the 11 women who graduated have been rearrested.

The women's program, which will be highlighted by the U.S. Department of Justice's National Reentry Resource Center for its success, has saved the county $286,250 in jail costs, said Lancaster County Community Corrections Director Kim Etherton. The program, combined with other community corrections programs, frees up nearly 80 beds a day in the jail, she said.

The sentence conversion/reentry programs are designed to help both men and women stay out of the criminal justice system through an intensive program that involves therapy, substance-abuse treatment, and learning responsibility and life skills, Etherton said.

When Lancaster County got a $2 million grant for the men's program, it was one of the first counties in the country to have such a program at the local level, Etherton said. At the time, the state was involved in starting a number of problem-solving courts to reduce overcrowding and she wanted to try something similar.

"I thought, if we could do something at the local level that would support these individuals and reduce the likelihood they'd return to the criminal justice system, we can keep them out of the state system," she said.

The men's program has served 81 offenders, and 35 men (48%) successfully completed the program. Of those men, 71% have not been jailed again, Etherton said, a positive number given that young men are more likely to reoffend and end up in prison.

Partners with St. Monica's

The success of the men's program begged the question: Why didn't women have the same opportunity? So Community Corrections applied for — and got another federal grant in 2019.

Like the men's program, the reentry program for women is voluntary and designed for those convicted of nonviolent offenses — typically theft or drug-related charges that get them jail time.

A judge must approve allowing inmates to participate, but unlike drug courts, which typically involve felony charges, the charges aren't dismissed upon completion of the program. Drug court programs also continue until participants complete the steps; the reentry program ends once a person's sentence is completed.

What is similar to problem-solving courts is the effort made to help people deal with the issues that got them into jail in the first place.

"We do it because incarceration isn't solving the problem," Etherton said.

The men's program was designed for offenders 18-32 years old and the county works with Matt Talbot and Sober Living Nebraska to provide 12 beds.

There are six beds available for women, and no age restriction. While the average age of women in the program is mid-40s, the program helped a young woman graduate from high school and has worked with grandmothers, said Taryn Tolliver, reentry program manager.

Generally, women tend to come into the system differently than men, Etherton said. They are often older, more often their offenses are related to relationships they're in, they may be domestic violence victims, and fewer have a criminal record that started at a young age.

The program screens participants to determine exactly what services they need and their personal goals, but often the services involve substance-abuse treatment, therapy related to domestic violence and other trauma, helping establish healthy relationships and help with personal finances.

Community Corrections partnered with St. Monica's, a substance-abuse treatment program for women, which uses a gender-specific and trauma-informed approach that's worked really well, Tolliver said.

The grant allowed for a year of planning, and the pandemic caused various delays and challenges because of quarantine restrictions at the jail and construction delays with remodeling one of St. Monica's residential facilities into supportive housing for the women participating.

By November 2020, they were ready and began screening participants. A year later, Peters was ready, too.

She got an ankle monitor, learned that there would be daily check-ins with a case manager, that she'd be expected to attend four or five meetings a week for therapy, house meetings, substance-abuse treatment, and personal finance education. She would have to get to the community corrections office downtown for regular drug tests. For the first 90 days, she'd only be able to talk to people approved by the case manager, to see only family members.

Peters left jail with another participant, a woman older than her, who became a big part of her success, she said. They recently celebrated their upcoming graduation from the program together.

"Going into anything new is a bit scary, especially when you're by yourself," Peters said. "It was nice to have someone to walk with me, right next to me, through the whole program. We rode the bus together, we bounced a lot of fears and exciting milestones off of each other. Not being alone was just a very big blessing, especially in those early days."

As she progressed through the program, Peters got a part-time job at Village Inn, where she said managers were very supportive of her and made sure she could fulfill the requirements of the program. Since then, she saved up enough money to get a car and now works for a tractor supply distribution center.

Last week, she moved out of the apartment she's shared with other participants and into St. Monica's transitional housing, one of 11 women to have successfully completed the program.

Tolliver said working with women in the program has been gratifying, watching them grow and rebuild relationships.

"Women can be very complex," she said. "Working with these women has been amazing — the changes and how it has positively impacted their lives and their families. I'm so impressed with all the women who have been through the program. It is really changing their lives."

For Peters, one of the most important things has been the support of her family and fiancé, who is a recovering addict. Her caseworker was there, too, always brutally honest, helping her work through various challenges.

"She's one of those people who's always had my back," she said.

The hardest part: learning how to be mentally, emotionally and spiritually fit, to be more willing to advocate for herself, to set boundaries and be responsible for those boundaries. Cravings can be a struggle, she said, but they weren't the hardest part.

The program helped her work through the hard part.

"The drugs were only a symptom of addiction. So much goes into living a sober life," Peters said. "The hardest part about the program was learning more about myself and how to fix myself."


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