Area leaders hash out drug court details

With targeted partners at the table Thursday, Washington County Common Pleas Judge Mark Kerenyi explained his pitch to launch a drug court within the year.

“I have $258,000 in grant funding secured through TCAP monies over a two-year time period that I have to spend,” he explained to the group gathered, referring to a state Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison grant. “Of that, $100,000 I’ve given to the jail to offset the cost of not sending (fifth-degree felony convictions) to prison, but I have another $158,000 to spend.”

In the group listening were representatives from court administration, Washington County Children Services, the county prosecutor’s office, Belpre Police Department, Adult Parole Authority, Hopewell Health Centers, Life and Purpose Services, Washington County Behavioral Health Board, Washington County Sheriff’s Office and County Commissioner David White.

Kerenyi explained that he also has the commitment from the behavioral health board to provide an additional $100,000 in the first year of a drug court program. Brent Phipps, deputy director of the board, said that could also include an additional $50,000 commitment in a second year of the program.

To explain what a drug court would entail, Kerenyi brought in Jason Varney and Tessa Smith, vice president of correctional programs and research and grants administrator, respectively, to discuss the parameters they use in other drug courts they administer in the state.

The pair then explained how the partners in the room could be enlisted in the goal of reducing repeat offenses of substance abuse.

“From my experience, a drug court is a community program,” said Varney. “It takes all of you to make this work.”

Differing from the prior drug court program which ran through common pleas in Washington County in the 2000s for four years before losing funding, the intensity of face-to-face time with the judge and with the case managers, supervisory authority and treatment providers would be greater, explained both Kerenyi and Assignment Commissioner Angie Stevens.

“Case management can be very intense, with supervison working with offenders three, four, five times a day even,” explained Varney, adding that multiple phases go into going through a drug court program.

He outlined five phases:

• Compliance: minimum 60 days.

• Engagement: minimum 90 days.

• Growth: minimum 90 days.

• Development: minimum 90 days.

• Maintenance: minimum 90 days.

“If you have a person that has successfully completed the drug court program, they’ve put a lot of work into it and have had a lot of time sober,” said Varney, noting a minimum of 420 days in the program before completion. “And to be admitted into this kind of program they voluntarily give up many rights, from the right to remain silent– they have to answer the judge’s questions weekly as he checks on their progress–to the right to freely associate…the judge can say who they can and cannot hang out with.”

Varney and Smith explained that the intensity of increased contact hours not only with case managers but also the judge holds those in the program more accountable to staying on track and working with local services getting stable housing and job training/work, with small rewards for progress written into the program, including things like movie tickets.

“It’s really a partnership between the offender and the court. I get to see them more and talk with them through their success and through their struggles,” Kerenyi added. “Right now I just deal in jail… so do you hammer them with jail every time they violate or do you hammer them with services first?”

Kerenyi and Varney explained in brief that the $258,000 could cover the cost of running the program for the first 18 months, and would cover the hiring through Oriana House a case manager, program manager and include rental of office space. Phipps added that treatment services and supplemental transportation that may be needed by some would be covered under the sliding fee structure in place through behavioral health and private insurance or Medicaid.

But there are some questions still to be answered, and further details to hammer out before an official go-ahead occurs.

Washington County Prosecutor Kevin Rings asked what incentives there would be to enter the program, and at what point in the judicial process that entry would be allowed.

“Would there be a reason to drag it out, through a jury trial and then at the last second say, ‘no I’ll plea if I can go through drug court?'” he expanded.

Kerenyi said that detail, along with others like criteria for entry, whether the court allows violent offenders, those with sexual offenses, or those with prior convictions into the program, would all have to be decided by the partners in the room.

White asked how the perception of the public, particularly those victims of drug-abusing offenders, would be managed. He also asked to see data on success rates, population demographics and cost before he brings the information before the entire board of county commissioners in three weeks.

“There is room to craft (a drug court program) in a way that fits your county and there’s also ways to craft it by the individual,” noted Kate Jiggins, Hopewell’s medically-assisted treatment and recovery director.

Jiggins explained that Hopewell does also administer similar drug court programs in other counties including Vinton, but noted their interest in Washington County is only to provide treatment as a community partner.

Moving forward, Kerenyi explained, it’s his intent to partner with Oriana House to administer the program through his court.

“But if you tell us you won’t sign a contract, we might be dead in the water,” he said to White, after explaining the court is not empowered to sign contracts on behalf of the county, only the county commissioners are.

White said he could discuss the proposal, including further detailed costs and data from Varney and Smith, with his fellow commissioners, Ron Feathers and Rick Walters in three weeks when both have returned from trips.

Kerenyi said following that public meeting he hopes to hold a follow-up meeting to begin setting parameters with the partners in September.