Drug court debated for Clark County

Some local leaders have pushed for a drug court as a tool to fight addiction as drug-related deaths have doubled in Clark County.

Other nearby communities such as Bellefontaine have created specialized courts that require treatment rather than jail time for many non-violent drug offenders.

But Clark County Municipal Court Judge Eugene Nevius said the program isn’t need here because the judges already use many of the same services.

“Every community needs to try to find what works for them,” Nevius said. “We’re able to address the problem in a pretty effective way.”

Wendy Doolittle, CEO of McKinley Hall treatment center, believes drug courts reduce crime and will soon be seen as the standard.

“Drug courts — they’re best practices now,” she said. “I think it will become an expectation and I think we’ll be seen as a county that’s falling short if we don’t implement it.”

‘Change their way of life’

Drug courts are specialized dockets that target non-violent offenders with substance abuse problems. Offenders who are accepted into a drug court program face intense restrictions and several months of treatment in order to avoid jail time.

The goal is to break the cycle of crime committed to feed a drug habit by treating the addiction.

Logan County Common Pleas Court added a drug court program about a year ago and the Ohio Supreme Court officially recognized it in the fall.

Offenders must check-in with a probation officer and have drug screens several times a week, said James Pleasant, Logan County Drug Court probation officer. They must also meet with Judge Mark O’Conner once a week.

“The key thing that I’m looking for is the person has to have a real passion that they want to change their way of life,” O’Conner said. “It takes a big commitment.”

That commitment is what can prevent relapse and re-offenders, he said.

The issue of drug courts came up in last November’s election. Nevius was re-elected by a narrow margin. His opponent, Assistant Clark County Prosecutor Daniel Carey, ran on a platform of establishing a drug court to fight the heroin epidemic.

Judges in Clark County already have the option to offer treatment in lieu of conviction, Nevius said, similar to Logan County’s program. But offenders don’t meet with a judge.

The county looked at creating a drug court several years ago, Nevius said, but Clark County can’t afford the resources necessary to create the specialized court.

“The cost of the personnel to maintain those courts here in Clark County was going to be half a million dollars,” he said. “Neither the county commission or the city commission felt that they could justify that expense.”

Drug deaths doubled

Clark County had 37 overdose deaths in 2014. That doubled to 74 deaths last year.

McKinley Hall offers treatment to Springfield addicts. CEO Wendy Doolittle has seen first-hand the drug problem in the community.

“It’s a brain disease,” she said. “And if we don’t begin to address it as such, we’ll continue to see overcrowded prisons with people that actually need treatment services.”

Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly said he’s seen a shift toward jailing fewer drug offenders but there’s still room for improvement.

“Thirty years ago we put people in jail for pretty much anything,” he said. “We can’t do that, we can’t afford it.”

Inmates also have the chance to get treatment while they’re in jail. But Kelly believes having to report to a judge could make a difference.

“We should do everything we can because there are so many people that don’t have the support, that don’t have the structure,” he said. “And they need someone, if they’re ever going to make it, to really push them.”

Erin Conwell was sentenced to treatment in lieu of conviction about a year and a half ago after she was charged with an OVI in Clark County. It took treatment to kick her heroin addiction, she said, and now she sees a therapist at McKinley Hall twice a month

“Being offered the chance to get treatment, that gives you the tools and a knowledge of this different life that you can have,” Conwell said.

More people should get the chance to have treatment instead of jail time, she said.

“Nothing in my life would be possible today if I hadn’t gone to treatment,” she said.

Clark County judges are committed to getting people help, Nevius said, despite not having a specialized court.

“We’re always looking at the underlying problem that has brought someone before the court and trying to address that problem with the ultimate goal of preventing that person from recycling through,” he said.

The county also looks for grants to bring more services to the area, he said.

The money would be better spent on more transitional housing and treatment options, Nevius said, rather than to create a drug court.

Addicts struggling with recovery can benefit from a drug court where they are treated for their disease rather than treated as a criminal, Doolittle said.

“There are many many successful drug courts out there, if you have them staffed properly and the team that’s working understands the disease of addiction,” she said.

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