The Eighth Judicial District Department of Correctional Services announced in late June that it would be canceling a series of employee contracts connected to the drug courts in Fort Madison and Ottumwa to help close a roughly $265,000 budget shortfall.
But on July 2, Lee County's weekly Drug Court looked no different than it had during any previous session.
Participants and family members sat quietly inside the second floor courtroom of the North Lee County Courthouse in Fort Madison, waiting for the program to begin. Everyone in the room soon learned, though, that while the program looked the same on the outside, plenty had changed in the previous week.
"I want everyone here to call another participant to let them know we are alive and well," said District Court Judge Michael Schilling upon entering the room and speaking to the five drug court participants sitting in the jury box.
That was made possible by the parties involved finding other ways to continue their participation through grant money, pro-bono work and billing a different agency. Judge Schilling had representatives of each agency explain how they would stay involved in drug court during the July 2 session, calling it the first "news conference" in the program's history.
Gary Pietz is the Deputy Director for the Eighth Judicial District Department of Corrections. Pietz said his department had to act quickly to resolve the budget shortfall, adding that "(we) had not had a chance to look at the big picture."
Pietz said there was never a question about the success of the program. He said it came down to money and protecting the jobs of the employees in his department. Pietz said the fact that these agencies stepped up to the challenge means the men and women involved in drug court will not have to face the threat of jail time because of a budget shortfall.
"I’m glad that we are able to continue to program and bring some clarity to things for them so they don’t have that worry as to what is going to happen," said Pietz.
However, there is one big change coming to the program.
Pietz said his department will not be able to provide a parole/probation officer at the same hours as before, so enrollment in the program will need be capped at 15 in Fort Madison and 15 in Ottumwa. He said there are only 22 active participants now, so everyone involved in the program will be able to continue.