WAHOO – Justin Johnson and Jason Dean have known each other for years. In the past, they used drugs together. These days, they hold each other accountable in their journey to remain sober and out of jail.
Dean and Johnson are participants in Problem Solving Court, a program recently introduced to Saunders County. Also known as Drug Court, the program creates a team consisting of professionals representing the courts, probation, law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys and treatment providers.
The team designs an individualized plan for the participants that involves treatment for drug or alcohol addiction, one of the leading causes of crime across the country today.
The program, also known as Drug Court, was introduced in Saunders County just over a year ago by Saunders County District Court Judge Christina Marroquin.
“Starting the Drug Court for Saunders County was a top priority when I was appointed to the bench,” Marroquin said.
Saunders County is part of the Fifth Judicial District Problem Solving Courts. Marroquin oversees the program in Butler and Colfax counties as well.
The goal of Problem Solving Court is to keep the participants from going in and out of jail. Statistics show one in two individuals with alcohol or drug issues is rearrested within one year of being incarcerated, while two/thirds are arrested again within three years of release.
“Rather than continuing to incarcerate these individuals with serious addictions, we are seeing them lead sober lives, obtain jobs, have stable housing, reunite with their children and give back to the community,” Marroquin said.
May is National Problem Solving Court Month, and to honor that, Dean and Johnson agreed to tell their very personal stories to the public.
Johnson grew up in a stable, loving environment in Wahoo with a large family. Their Czech heritage meant wine and beer were served at most family events.
“Alcohol had always been a pretty common thing as far as family functions,” he said.
Johnson was exposed to alcohol from an early age, as it was common for children to be served a glass of wine or beer at some family events, he said.
Johnson eventually started drinking beyond those occasions. By the time he was in high school, he was physically addicted to alcohol, although he didn’t know it at the time. Then, he began smoking marijuana, which quickly became a daily habit.
Marijuana led to cocaine and heroin.
“Once you start smoking marijuana, it opens the door to harder drugs,” Johnson said.
His drug use led to multiple run-ins with the law. The 29-year-old has been in jail or prison 17 times. While in lockup he was offered treatment, which he tried several times. But it didn’t work for him.
Dean’s story starts out very differently. He is the product of a broken marriage. His mother and siblings left when he was young. He was raised by a single father who worked two jobs to put food on the table.
As a result, Dean was on his own most of the time, and that led down a path to drug use starting at age 14 and later to stints in jail. He was arrested in Saunders County on Dec. 16, 2019 for possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver and obstruction of justice.
This time, rather than face another jail sentence, Dean opted for Problem Solving Court. One of the benefits is that the felony can be taken off his record if he has not had any previous convictions for violent felonies.
“Problem Solving Court gives me the opportunity to complete the program to wipe my slate clean of those charges,” Dean said.
“It’s good for people who have never had a felony conviction because it keeps them away from being labeled as a felon,” said Johnson.
Johnson has past felony convictions, but opted to join the program to get sober.
“The goal is not only to get sober but to live a happy, successful, productive life and be a positive member of society and the community,” he said.
The program includes intensive supervised treatment programs that are designed for high-risk and high-need individuals. Johnson and Dean were sent to inpatient treatment at Stephen Center in Omaha. There they were offered counseling, coping classes and other forms of treatment.
“I learned a lot about my addiction and where it came from,” Dean said.
After four months at the Stephens Center, they moved to Oxford House, a sober living facility also in Omaha.
At Oxford House, they are surrounded by other men who are also going through the treatment.
“These guys are in the same boat,” Dean said.
At this point in his life, Johnson said he needs to be around others who are in recovery to maintain his sobriety.
“The main thing I’m focused on is that I don’t have any room in my life for anybody that’s not in recovery,” he said.
In treatment, Dean found a relationship with God and learned coping skills, something that was lacking in his earlier attempts at sobriety.
“My problems in life aren’t the end of the world anymore,” he said.
During treatment, Johnson has had the opportunity to build genuine, mutual and loyal relationships.
“I think that’s what everybody wants in a relationship,” he said.
Johnson also has had the chance to share his testimony with others who are just starting out in recovery.
“I’ve gotten to the point that I can help other people get sober,” he said.
Both men have been sober for about 18 months. But they still vividly remember what it felt like before.
Johnson was broke, had not car to drive and didn’t even own a phone.
“I’d accepted the fact that I was addicted to alcohol and that I was going to die that way,” he said. “Now, 18 months later, that is the farthest from the truth that I could’ve ever imagined.”
Now, Johnson is starting his own tree service business and he installs gutters with a friend.
“Today I have a future,” he said. “A better future than I ever dreamed of.”
Dean has reestablished a relationship with his teenage daughter, who inspired him to get sober. In treatment, he realized how much of her life he’d missed while being an addict.
And for the first time in a decade, Dean is getting ready to sign a lease for a home that has a bedroom for his daughter.
“That’s always been the No. 1 goal,” he said.
During Problem Solving Court, Dean, Johnson and the rest of the participants must meet once a month with the team. They are held accountable for their actions through these meetings, along with random drug testing and home visits.
The program includes employment services. Dean is working as a carpenter doing residential remodeling. His boss is also in recovery.
“For the first time in my life, I know that I am providing for my daughter,” he said.
Both men are on track to graduate from Problem Solving Court soon, something the judge is eagerly anticipating.
“I am looking forward to celebrating our first round of graduation this summer and expect to celebrate many more in the years to come,” she said.