With cases of heroin, methamphetamine and alcoholism at epidemic levels, Fulton County will embark on a new strategy to stem the tide.
Incoming Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey Robinson won approval for the court Dec. 1 from the Fulton County Board of Commissioners.
The goal is to use interventionism rather than incarceration to get people away from using controlled substances.
Robinson was appointed to the bench in 2005 by then Gov. Robert Taft.
Drug Court is not a new idea, just new to Fulton County, Robinson said. Williams County has had one for several years under Judge Steltzer, he said. That court and Robinson’s are patterned after the template created by Hardin County.
Robinson and Sheriff Roy Miller visited Steltzer’s court in Williams County to see how it operates.
“It’s a lot of work,” Robinson said.
Not everyone arrested on drug charges will qualify for drug court, Robinson said. Violent offenders and dealers will remain in the traditional system, he said.
“We plan to reach citizens charged with drug offenses,” Robinson said. “We want to change their behavior. They will meet with the Common Pleas Judge in a group setting.”
The approach will be about reward and punishment, Robinson said.
Participants will be in one of three phases of the program and can move up or down based on their behavior. The first phase is one of extreme intensive oversight of a participant. They can move up to Phase 2 which involves less intensive oversight and finally Phase 3 which has little supervision.
Failure to pass drug tests or other relapses will send a person to a lower phase.
“Jail is a potential penalty.” Robinson said.
In Williams County, Steltzer has remained optimistic the program can succeed.
Sheriff Miller and Fulton Prosecutor are behind Robinson on this, he said.
There will be certain standards the participants have to meet such as a dress code when they appear in court. That means collared shirts for men and a blouse and skirt or a dress for women.
An additional probation officer will be brought on to help with the caseloads.
A Drug Court coordinator will oversee operations. A grant from the Department of Mental Health, which is likely to be approved, will cover about 65 percent of the coordinator’s salary, the judge said.
Adamhs will provide $30,000 to $35,000 for the coordinator’s costs. The drug court will save more than that through intervention.
Participants will be assessed to see which approach is best for them. For most having gainful employment is important, but for some a job may not be appropriate.
Of the 88 counties in Ohio, Fulton County is 84th in overdose deaths. The numbers could be worse as many cases which originated locally are credited to the county where the person expired.
“It is bad here,” Robinson said. “It goes across all socioeconomic lines.”
The presence of drugs in society is insidious as 65-75 percent of crimes committed in Fulton County are drug-related. Two thirds of those crimes are linked to heroin.
“We want to change people to think proactively,” Robinson said.
The commissioners approved a request to consolidate all probation officers to office space in the basement of the courthouse. The displaced staff have other options and will only suffer minor inconvenience.
“I will not come back and ask for more room,” Robinson said. “We will make do for six years.”
While the concept appears to have lofty goals, the judge said his goal is not to salvage everyone in the county. Where typically rehab takes up to 2 years, he wants participants to be able to live a normal life. He doesn’t think there will be anyone from the initial group still in the system in five years.
Robinson will be in Columbus for four days the week of Dec. 12 for training. This is being paid by the State Supreme Court, he said.
The commissioners were warm to Robinson’s plan.
“We are behind you all the way,” Bill Rufenacht said.
“We have an opportunity to make a significant difference in people’s lives,” Robinson said.
James Pruitt may be reached at email@example.com