New Fulton County Drug Court Will Hope To Succeed Where Prison Has Failed Society

PHOTO BY JAMES PRUITT, STAFF
DRUG COURT … Fulton County Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey Robinson is rolling out the first drug court. He is assisted by Erica Burkholder (left).


Fulton County will have a new tool when it comes to combating the local drug problem with a new drug court.

The state authorized the court in February and now Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey Robinson is working with treatment professionals, probation officers, and defense attorneys on finding the best candidates for admission.

Unlike most courts, this is one you want to be in if you are an addict. The concept of the Drug Court had its genesis as a specialized docket of the Ohio Supreme Court, Judge Robinson said.

Drug Court is designed specifically for people who have problems with narcotics such as heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine or who are alcoholics. The addicts who use these drugs might be behaving in a manner they would not normally do, which qualifies them for the Drug Court.

In order to have a Drug Court, there are requirements set down by the Supreme Court of the State of Ohio that have to be met. Fulton County had to set up its own program first, he said.

The drug court program is an intensive, supervised regimen.  It is specifically designed for each individual person, Robinson said.

Treatments for the various drugs require different approaches. It is not a one type fits all, Robinson said.

“There are different triggers for those things,” Robinson said. “The idea is to change offender behavior. That’s what we are trying to do”.

The applicant’s case and circumstances are reviewed and Robinson ultimately makes the final decision on each case. Applicants, while already on the hook as a confessed drug user, still have to meet certain criteria:

  • They cannot be convicted of a violent crime.
  • They cannot be convicted of selling or possessing large quantities of narcotics.
  • Sex offenders do not qualify.
  • Offenses of violence do not qualify.

The person signs an application. They are there generally as referral from a probation officer or a defense attorney. Drug Court Coordinator Erica Burkholder sets up assessment; this will include a presentencing investigation.

The applicant then comes back for sentencing, where Robinson has the findings of the presentencing investigation. He has the person’s whole background as well as information from the Drug Court for him to decide.

If admitted the person will have their case reviewed by a treatment team, (which could include a chain of people providing services in northwest Ohio). This includes Renewed Mind, Jobs and Family Services, and former treatment providers which they can refer these people to such as halfway houses.

The Treatment team and Drug Court meet twice a month. The judge, a defense attorney and treatment team, meet first to discuss the progress or lack thereof.

“We talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Robinson said. “We discuss as a group what to do with the person when they fail; how to keep them (going) when the Drug Court meets”.

The parties will then go to the courtroom and have a confidential meeting.  The judge reviews the cases individually and then talks with the parties on how to proceed.

That could be the person getting a job, or other positive reinforcement for passing drug screens and not missing appointments.

Individuals are held accountable for missed appointments or failing a drug screen. Accountability is a big part of the process, the judge said.

There are three phases to the program:

Phase 1:  Very intensive supervision

Phase 2:  Less intensive supervision – the person still meets with the Drug Court program.

“It may be a step down in the number of urine screens,” Robinson said, “or the number of times they have to meet with the people who are providing them services.”

Phase 3:  This is more like Phase II, where the court tries to get the individuals to the place where they can cope with their disease in the real world.

Once the person completes Phase III, they can graduate from the program, Robinson said.

Graduation does not clear their records.

“They are still guilty of the felony they were originally charged with,” Robinson said. “It stays with them, but they are hopefully clean and sober at that time. Hopefully they are able to function in the outside world.”

To get them on the road back to normalcy, there are some high standards, such as a dress code for when they come to court or when they interview for a job.

“Part of that is building them up and giving them coping skills,” Burkholder said. “We are going to give them interviewing skills.” This training will go beyond what to say, but also what to say in response. If they don’t have a high school diploma they will have to obtain a GED, Burkholder said. “They will graduate twice,” Burkholder said referring to the program as well.

The people who would be in Drug Court don’t possess the coping skills or a support mechanism, Robinson said.

“They have gotten to a point where anyone who was assisting them or trying to help them has physically gone away,” Robinson said. “The addiction was too much.”

“The purpose of Drug Court is to provide that support to assist them and instill a level of self-confidence and maybe some self-esteem. Most addicts don’t want to be addicts.”

The problem with the addiction is that it is omnipresent in their lives, Robinson said. It is almost impossible to resist the urge. Only a very few people are able to not let the addictive substance not become the be all and end all of their existence, he said.

“What we are trying to do is fix that,” “Robinson said. “Because they can’t resist, we are trying to correct the triggers. We are trying to heal the whole person.”

Since the addiction is all they know, the court has to rewire them, Burkholder said. They have to want it, she said.

“Accountability is the key,” Robinson said.  “For the addict, lying is a way of life.”

Part of the change in behavior is to have them recognize they have failed. Self-reporting is critical to the recovery process.

The court will have incentives and rewards to hand out to people who are making progress and achieving goals. The gifts are small in value, but are important to help reinforce good behaviors.

All the awards have been donated from local businesses.

The goodies are a tangible incentive.

The goodies and the court are patterned after the court in Williams County. That court has had its first graduates: three people who have been in the program for two years.

The ceremony was a very emotional experience for everybody, Robinson said.  The graduates feel they can go and get their lives back, he said.

Without a Drug Court, most of the suspects would be sentenced for low-level felonies and serve anywhere from six to nine months, Robinson said. Since the prisons don’t have the resources to treat them, the addicts can be cut off from their drugs, but will go back to using once they get out, he said.

It’s an expensive habit. The addict must come up with $80 to $120 a day (about $36,000 a year.)The addict is willing to do anything to fill that habit.

That leads to an uptick in crime: thefts from merchants and forgeries, Robinson said.

“They steal from their families, to the point of putting their children at risk,” the judge said. “The impact on the families is significant. This program attempts to alleviate some of that.”

The Drug Court is not a silver bullet. This won’t cure the problem.

“This is not a panacea, it’s a tourniquet,” Robinson said, “to help stop some of the bleeding.”

The demand for opiates is high. Northwest Ohio is one of the worst areas in the country per capita.

“I understand from our prosecutor that northwest Ohio has a higher usage rate, per capita, than New York City,” Robinson said. “I don’t want people to think that it’s not here, because it is here.”

The only way to turn the corner is for parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles to speak to children at a very early age about how awful the situation is, Robinson said. Society has to stop glamorizing drugs, alcohol and narcotics, he said.

“Once we make it something that is not hip or cool, we are going to be better,” Robinson said.

A bright sign is the end of overprescribing of opiates by well-intentioned physicians, the judge said.  This took getting the dentists, surgeons, and physicians to be more careful about what and how much they prescribe to their patients.

“I’m not blaming the medical community, but it’s clear that was a contributing factor in what’s occurred,” Robinson said. “This is a tourniquet, it’s not a cure. We are hoping to make life better for a lot of people. I am not so naïve this program is going to end the drug addiction problem.”

To put it practical terms, it costs the state $50,000 a year to house one person in the state penal system. If the Drug Court is successful with keeping 10 people a year out of prison, that’s a savings of $500,000.

“That’s a lot of incentive for keeping people out of prison,” Robinson said.

If the addict doesn’t change their behavior, they will continue to rack up lower felonies, be gone for a year, and come back, Robinson said. “It’s a revolving door.”

“We have the ability to save lives,” Burkholder said. “This is something that needs to be done.”

Robinson offered some advice to residents:

“People need to be vigilant,” Robinson said. People need to report activities that look weird. Report it to the police or the sheriff, so those situations can be monitored. “We are protecting our families, children from potential destruction.”

The program has an initial cost of $100,000 a year, but the ADAMhs board has donated $36,000 to reduce the bill. The money covers the cost of Burkholder and two probation officers. A grant could add a third, the judge said.

The program is popular with the local addicts in the system. The state authorized the court Feb. 7 and the first applicant came at 11:30 the next morning, Burkholder said.

“We have five people referred and one was accepted,” Burkholder said. “The others have to be reviewed.”

While the Fulton County court is authorized for 40 people, Robinson said that number is too big. “I don’t know if there is magic number. We haven’t done this yet,” Robinson said. “There is a restriction on how well we can supervise.”

Bryan’s court has 20-30 people in its program at a time. Robinson would like to get there, but now has two probation officers who oversee 140 people. The target ratio is 35 to one.

The court will apply for a grant from the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction for a third officer.

“Ultimately this is saving taxpayers’ money,” Robinson said. “Prison is not working.”

James can be reached at publisher@thevillagereporter.com

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