Local drug court needed

Much has been written about the opioid epidemic in Ohio and the overpopulation of the correctional system by non-violent drug-related offenders. There is widespread acknowledgment that sentencing such offenders to prison causes overcrowding and is ineffective at preventing recidivism. Because the underlying drug problem is not treated in prison, the typical offender is released and then goes on to commit more crimes. These crimes are being committed to pay for the addiction. Drug courts have been established in many areas to address this problem.

People convicted of drug offenses make up the largest percentage of the prison population in Ohio, and in the nation as a whole. In Ohio, 27% of the prison population is incarcerated for a drug offense. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Correction’s annual report for 2015 states 5,329 out of 19,755 inmates are committed to prison for drug offenses. This number does not include those inmates who are committed to prison for other crimes that they committed while under the influence of drugs or while seeking the money to sustain a drug habit.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse publishes a pamphlet entitled “Principles of Drug Abuse Treatment for Criminal Justice Populations – A Research-Based Guide” (www.drugabuse.gov). It states “Legally mandated treatment is as effective or better than outcomes for those who entered treatment without legal pressure.” An argument can be made for diverting non-violent drug-related offenders to a drug court, rather than to the prison system. Sentencing an offender to treatment is an effective way to reduce prison populations as well as reducing recidivism and crime. The pamphlet also states “The case for treating drug-abusing offenders is compelling and has beneficial effects for public health and safety.” The entire pamphlet is too long to summarize here but it answers questions addressing the ineffectiveness of forced abstinence due to imprisonment and whether all drug abusers in the criminal justice system are good candidates for treatment, and related issues.

Drug courts are a specialized docket that must be certified by the Ohio Supreme Court. There are currently 91 drug courts in Ohio. Six are under initial review, six have received initial certification, and 79 are certified. The requirement to establish a specialized docket may be found at www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/JCS/drug-court/default.asp.

We invited the two candidates for judge in the Washington County Court of Common Pleas to provide their views on the need for a drug court in Washington County.

Mark Kerenyi stated: “One of the most serious issues facing our community is the devastation caused by the epidemic of illegal drug use. Illegal drug use impacts our entire community. Drug abusers often commit property crimes to support their habits, commit violent offenses and endanger others while under the influence, and neglect to care for their dependents. I recognize that drug dependent offenders need to go through treatment. I want fiscally responsible options for drug offenders who come through the courts. A drug court is an option that I would like to lead. Creation of a drug court would require the cooperation of all three branches of government. Unless the courts could obtain a grant, funding of a drug court would be the responsibility of the other branches of government. It is my hope that our community will come together and recognize the importance of funding a drug court.”

Shoshanna Brooker stated: “Drug rehabilitation programming in our community is necessary to address the opioid epidemic we are facing. Opioids are like no other drug we’ve seen. A user’s free will is gone. After extensive opioid use, the brain takes 30 to 90 days to heal enough to make decisions. Drug Court is a viable option for offenders with low quantity drug possession and non-drug related offenses fueled by addiction. Drug Court requires accountability and responsibility from the offender and combined with in-patient treatment and engaging a Vivotrol program shows promise to get addicts clean. Funding the positions required to operate a drug court (counselor, administrator, probation officer) along with administrative costs will run approximately $200-$250,000 annually. We need to apply for all federal, state and philanthropic grants for necessary funding. The bottom line is not finding funding and not adding programming cannot be an option for the Court going forward.”

We read in the paper and hear on the news that we are in the midst of an opioid epidemic that is particularly bad in southeast Ohio. Drug courts are a cost-effective way to deal with a problem that is extremely costly to our community, both financially and in terms of public health and safety. The costs of running a drug court are more than offset by the cost incurred by our penal system, health system, business owners, and individual citizens affected by the crimes committed by drug abusers. Effective treatment that reduces recidivism and returns the abuser as a constructive member of the community is financially, ethically, and morally the right thing for our community.

Brett Nicholas is a member of the Washington County Behavioral Health Board. Behavioral Health Matters appears on the Opinion page on the last Saturday of the month.