A special Fulton County program designed to give drug abusers a second chance at life is still in its infancy, but the man behind it has high hopes for years of success.
Drug Court was established in February, and Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey Robinson said the collaboration between his bench, court departments, local law enforcement, and multiple treatment providers is giving offenders the opportunity to clean up and start over.
“The idea is, we’re trying to get these people healthy,” he said. “At the moment, the results we’ve seen…are very promising.”
While not a new concept, it’s one that impressed Judge Robinson after he joined about 1,000 other people at a conference on opium addiction in 2013 hosted by the governor’s office and the Ohio Supreme Court.
“That was a very eye-opening experience for a lot of attendees. That’s when I first realized about the opium epidemic,” he said.
He approached now retired Fulton County Judge James Barber about starting the process of crafting what is known as a “specialized docket.” They began drafting documentation for Drug Court a year ago, and eventually submitted the document to the state Supreme Court for consideration. It was approved in February.
“This is not something new. It’s something that’s been working for years in other counties. It’s getting started here because I know that it works,” Judge Robinson said.
To qualify, a person must be a criminal offender; in fact, most are fresh from recent indictments. Candidates can be referred through judicial release, an attorney or a probation officer; however, violent offenders and sexual predators are not accepted.
Applicants are screened and their physical and mental backgrounds and criminal histories are thoroughly reviewed. They are also referred by the court to area help agencies for assessment. All of that information goes before the program’s Treatment Team, comprised of Judge Robinson, members of the court’s probation department, treatment providers, and representatives of the Department of Job and Family Services and area help agencies, among other professionals. The team meets monthly to gauge potential candidates.
Judge Robinson admits he knows little about the process of drug treatment, and so relies heavily on knowledge of the team’s members to select candidates.
An applicant must be an appropriate candidate, and not all are, he said. Factors considered include the person’s type and level of addiction, their mental health, and what stage of recovery they’re experiencing.
“I would like to bring in all the offenders to the program but some people aren’t ready for this,” the judge said. “They would fail in the program. So we have to make a determination that these people are right for the program. Just because they have a drug problem doesn’t mean they’re going to be amenable to Drug Court.”
And those who do make the cut are not in for a free ride, the judge said. To be admitted, they must plead guilty to their offense. Drug Court becomes a condition of their community control, and they are required to complete the highly-monitored program or face possible prison time.
All cases are customized to fit the offender’s specific needs, which, in part, means being subjected to area help programs. Drug Court utilizes three phases of treatment, the first regarded as the most intense.
Twice each month the Treatment Team meets in Judge Robinson’s courtroom to review and evaluate the cases, then the offenders are brought in as a group to meet with the team. “The idea is for each of them to hear the others” so they realize they’re all facing the same demons, he said.
Even with all that support, “people are going to fail frequently while in this program,” Judge Robinson said. On those occasions, sanctions can be implemented, such as more meetings with their counselor, a curfew, an ankle monitor, more intensive therapy, and even jail time.
“Being addicted is not something that these people want to be,” the judge said. “They’re tired of being addicts, they’re tired of being liars, they’re tired of being thieves. They don’t want to be addicts, but they’re going to fail to do all the things they’re supposed to do. Accountability is a big deal here. So we have to have sanctions.”
But what is heartening is that in most cases the client will report their own failure in an effort to stay on course with treatment, he added.
Drug Court is designed to last about two years to give the offenders’ bodies and minds time to heal from the abuse to which they’ve been subjected. Some offenders may not need the full time, while others may require up to three years.
“I like to say this is a marathon, not a sprint,” Judge Robinson said. The entire process can include support from addiction services, counseling services, and halfway houses.
The program can hold up to 40 offenders; by the end of the current week it will have served seven. It’s funded through the county budget and $37,000 from the local ADAMhs board.
Judge Robinson said that’s a bargain price, considering that the annual average cost of an individual prison stay is $60,000.
“I think this is an incredibly good investment for the county. It’s going to pay incredible dividends for the community,” he said. “In the past, people would offend and get sent to prison and get no drug treatment. They get out, they get reconnected, and they get jailed again. In terms of the costs for criminal activity the program will easily pay for itself. It will bring back a return.”
Drug Court Coordinator Erica Burkholder performs the initial assessment on the program’s applicants and prepares all of the program’s documents. A former crisis intervention trainer and supervisor of mental health contracts for county jails, she meets once each week with the accepted offenders, tracking their successes and discussing positive choices. She also assigns “homework” related to sobriety recovery or coping skills.
“Failure is not an option,” Burkholder said. “If we have the ability to save one life then we’re saving more than one. We’re also saving their family, their community. A future that is substance free for these people is promising if they want it, and I want to be part of that road they’re on.”
The Treatment Team is passionate about helping, but foremost the offenders have to want the road to recovery, she said.
“We hold them accountable for all their actions. They have to want this more than I want this for them, and more than the judge wants this. If not, it’s a revolving cycle.”
Judge Robinson said Drug Court makes a huge positive difference for both addicts and their families.
“This program brings people back as responsible members of society,” he said. “It takes people from being dependent on drugs to productive citizens. So far, it’s been incredibly rewarding and humbling.”
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.