Richard Penney's life used to revolve around buying “bud” (marijuana), skipping school and hanging out to play video games.
“All I wanted to do was drink and smoke and chill,” Penney said. “I didn't want to work, I didn't want to go to school.”
It was a lifestyle that got him kicked out of two Omaha high schools and arrested for vandalizing a car, using marijuana and selling hydrocodone. He blew off juvenile court orders and skipped urine drug tests.
His next stop was state prison for felony drug possession. One to 20 years.
But today he's working full time and is up for a promotion. He's been sober for 22 months, is married and just found out he'll soon be a father.
People who know him say Richard Penney, at 20, has made a complete transformation.
“I'm not rich and famous, but I'm working an honest job for an honest paycheck,” he said. “I'm living an honest life.”
What changed for Penney?
He is a participant in a Young Adult Court in Douglas County, a tough-love, highly supervised program that gives first-time, nonviolent felons ages 16 to 22 a chance to become productive, law-abiding citizens and avoid prison.
The State of Nebraska is looking at alternatives to prison such as the Young Adult Court to help the state deal with chronic prison overcrowding.
Gov. Dave Heineman and leaders in the Nebraska Legislature say they want to avoid the expense of building a new prison, which could cost $130 million or more.
So they're looking at “judicial reinvestment,” an approach used by several states to reduce prison overcrowding by redirecting money to alternatives to incarceration. Those alternatives include probation, parole and problem-solving courts such as the Young Adult Court.
In that court, young offenders are required to attend behavior modification courses, get a job, steer clear of drugs and crime, and pay restitution to victims. If they do, participants can withdraw guilty pleas to serious felony crimes such as burglary, auto theft and drug distribution, and be convicted of less-serious misdemeanors.
It gives them a fresh start instead of a prison cot.
“This makes them think, maybe for the first time, about what their behaviors got them,” said Bob Blanchard, the senior probation officer who coordinates the Young Adult Court. “If they're willing to accept that they have problems, and they work on them and we're successful, we're saving taxpayers money.”
The state prison system is significantly overcrowded, holding 1,600 more inmates than its design capacity, requiring double-bunking of dozens of cells and the use of about 60 cots a day in one facility.
Nearly one in four state prison inmates — about 1,100 — are younger than 26. Many have never held a job or led a normal life.
State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, who is heading up judicial reinvestment efforts in the Legislature, said many of these young adults, especially those who are nonviolent but with a high-risk of re-offending, could be treated through Young Adult Courts rather than by sending them to prison.
The state has 24 problem-solving courts across the state, mostly focused on drugs but also families and juveniles.
They are spread across the state, available in all but one judicial district, and deal with about 1,200 people a year. Since 1997, more than 2,000 adults have graduated from problem-solving courts in Nebraska.
Ashford and others believe new courts could be established to focus on military veterans facing prison time, or those with mental illnesses.
The cost of dealing with an offender through problem-solving courts is about half or less than the cost of sending them to prison. A stay in state prison can cost up to $92 per day, according to a 2012 report by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, compared with $12 to $46 per day for an offender in a problem-solving court.
The UNL study estimated that Nebraska already saves up to $9.7 million a year in reduced prison costs.
Nationally, the rate of repeat crimes for drug offenders is about 48 percent. That rate is much lower for graduates of drug courts, ranging from 4 percent to 29 percent.
Douglas County District Judge Mark Ashford, who is Sen. Ashford's brother, presides over the county's Young Adult Court. He said such problem-solving courts work best for young adults who have done something stupid.
“Are these kids we're afraid of or just mad at?” Ashford asked.
The downside is that problem-solving courts take extra time for judges and require new training and upfront investment to hire more probation officers to oversee participants.
More treatment services and halfway houses would be needed, especially in rural areas, if use of the courts was expanded.
Sen. Ashford has estimated that in Douglas County, another 400 offenders could be handled through Young Adult Court instead of prison, but it would cost upward of $5 million to hire 20 specialized probation officers and 11 other court and treatment staff.
But even some fiscally conservative groups, such as Omaha's Platte Institute, say judicial reinvestment is being “smart” on crime by reducing spending on corrections and producing better outcomes, such as fewer repeat crimes.
“These kinds of arrangements have been shown to be effective and to ease budgets,” said Jim Vokal of the Platte Institute. He added that such alternatives need to be balanced with keeping high-risk, violent inmates behind bars.
The Douglas County Young Adult Court was started in 2004 by District Judge Patricia Lamberty. It was patterned after a similar program in Iowa. Judge Ashford has taken over as the presiding judge in recent years.
Right now the court has 28 participants, mostly young men, but with the hiring of a couple of new probation officers, it is expected to expand past 30.
Unlike drug court, Young Adult Court focuses on a broad range of issues — not just substance abuse, but why the participants commit crimes. Classes are offered on anger management, nonviolent communications and recovering from substance abuse.
“It helps them understand how they got where they're at,” Blanchard said.
Participants, who are selected by the Douglas County Attorney's Office, are contacted frequently by Blanchard, the probation officer. He has a much smaller caseload than regular probation officers, which frees up more time, night and day, for him to supervise Young Adult Court participants.
Blanchard looks like a drill sergeant. But he mixes stern warnings about messing up and going to prison with encouragement about getting a job and learning from mistakes.
“Bob can see their faults but can also see their strengths,” said Shawna McDowell of Omaha, whose son has spent three years in the program after his arrest for dealing marijuana.
Young Adult Court has four phases, and the program can take two years or longer to complete. Every month, participants must attend a court session with Judge Ashford, Blanchard and a county attorney to report on their progress. Have they gotten a job? Are they attending weekly programs and AA meetings? Are they passing drug tests and staying free of crime? Have they paid restitution to the victims of their crimes?
Applause is frequently heard during the monthly court sessions for those bringing in a “good report.”
At the November session, a 21-year-old, charged with felony drug dealing, stepped before the judge. His report: He has graduated from a substance-abuse program and moved into a supervised “three-quarters” house to ease the transition back into society.
Another participant, a 22-year-old arrested for felony drug possession, has held a job for eight months and hasn't missed an AA meeting. After 14 months, he has passed the first two phases of the program, so he is allowed to plead to a reduced misdemeanor charge and is sentenced to one year on probation. If he stays clean, no jail.
“Let's give him a hand,” the judge says. “He made it to Phase 3. Good job.”
But the mood in the courtroom turns somber when the next participant steps forward. A 21-year-old facing felony burglary charges, he has been in Young Adult Court for 18 months. But this summer he was charged with two new offenses: driving under suspension and leaving the scene of an accident. He has been regularly skipping his required drug tests. And he was 40 minutes late for a required meeting.
“It's always the same thing. Excuses,” Blanchard tells the judge.
The 21-year-old shifts nervously as he talks to the judge. He said he has been working long hours, 7 to 7, and just got permission to leave early for court-required meetings. He promises to go immediately and get the drug test. “It's been nothing that's intentional,” he said.
But Blanchard and Ashford have already given him a couple of second chances. No more.
“The time has come to say goodbye,” Blanchard told the judge.
Ashford revoked the bond that allowed the man to be in Young Adult Court, and a sheriff's deputy stepped up to put him in handcuffs. He's off to jail and probably to prison.
“He's one of those guys who appears not to get it,” Blanchard said. “Some of these kids feel they're so smart they can kind of game the system. They feel like this is something they can play.”
Since 2004, 98 young adults have been accepted into the court, and 28 have successfully graduated. Twenty-four washed out, seven were dropped after committing new crimes and 11 declined to participate. Twenty-eight are still in the program.
“You've got to want to change,” Blanchard said. “Some may not want to at first.”
Richard Penney was that way.
He said that even after he landed on juvenile probation for a drug charge, he kept using drugs and skipping school. He got a job but was quickly fired.
He flunked out of another re-entry program and was back in jail. But he was granted a second chance in the Young Adult Court, and after a couple of months in the program, something clicked.
Penney said he began listening to the tough-love talks delivered by Blanchard and was inspired by others who talked to Young Adult Court participants about quitting drugs and enjoying a clean life. He has been sober since Jan. 22, 2012.
“I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I was always stressing about getting caught (again),” Penney said. “It's like living a lie to think you can do this the rest of your life. You can't. You need to grow up.”
He met his future wife and got a job at Five Guys Burgers and Fries in Omaha. He's up for a promotion next month to assistant manager and is making plans to buy a car and get his own place. Someday he'd like to go to college and get a degree. He used to play in the drum line at Omaha South High, and he would like to teach percussion.
In September he graduated to the last step of the program: one year of probation. He was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge of misdemeanor drug possession.
Young Adult Court, he said, “isn't about punishment, it's about getting your head screwed on right.”
“It can stop you from going down that repeat offender track,” Penney said. “It shows you how to be a grown man or woman.”