Drug courts reduce jail time

By Mike DeWine

Almost eight Ohioans die every day from accidental drug overdoses. And today’s street heroin is, by many estimates, between seven and 12 times more potent than what was available in the ’70s.

The opioid epidemic currently engulfing us is straining our criminal justice system. We simply can’t arrest and incarcerate our way out of the crisis, a fact that makes drug courts a valuable weapon in this battle.

Drug courts provide a chance for eligible individuals to connect to treatment and other services instead of going through the standard criminal case process. Participants meet with the drug court judge regularly to make sure they’re clean, on the job or in school, caring for their kids, and otherwise honoring their obligations. They’re regularly tested for drugs, frequently rewarded for doing well, and typically sanctioned when they don’t comply with the program’s requirements. If they succeed with the drug court program, their cases can be expunged or, in some cases, dismissed.

Ohio’s 91 drug courts are among more than 3,000 operating in the United States and its territories and the results are positive. According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, three out of four drug court graduates stay drug-free at least two years after graduating from the program. And for every dollar invested in drug courts, taxpayers save as much as $3.36 in avoided criminal justice costs, alone.

Just as remarkable are the stories of how drug courts helped redirect and mend lives.

Judge Fred Moses, who oversees the Hocking County drug court, recognized the need to treat addiction like a disease. Those in his court who are in recovery use Vivitrol, a medication that blocks stimulation to the brain from opiates like heroin.

I visited Judge Moses’s drug court in May. I watched him interact with the participants and learned more about his Vivitrol program. If we’re serious about turning the tide on this opiate epidemic that’s killing so many people in Ohio, we have to be willing to do things differently. And what Judge Moses and others are doing appears to be working.

For example, Jennifer Davis, a 26-year-old mother, embraced his “compassion and accountability.” Davis struggled with addiction, overdosed, landed in jail several times, and lost custody of her three daughters. After successfully completing Judge Moses’s drug court program, Davis is clean, gainfully employed, and again has custody of her daughters.

Heroin also hooked Lisa Missig, a 21-year-old mother, while she was still in high school.

“All I could see was the high, and the next high, and the next high, and more until I was high enough to go to sleep and wake up and do it all over again,” she said. Missig hit rock bottom, and her one-and-a-half year old son, Jonathan, was taken away from her. But after graduating from Judge David Matia’s Cuyahoga County Drug Court Program, she’ll get her family back and will be able to be a mom again. Judge Matia called Missig an “inspiration.”

If we’re serious about turning the tide on the opiate epidemic that’s devastating our state, we must be willing to approach the problem in new ways.

Scott VanDerKarr, former Franklin County Municipal Court judge, retired last January to help set up new drug courts around Ohio. He was one of the first judges in the state to preside over a drug court. As his time on the bench came to a close, Judge VanDerKarr estimated that his work was affecting about 200 kids at any one time.

He’ll remember one of those kids for quite a while.

While sitting at his desk on his last day, a woman approached Judge VanDerKarr with a teddy bear she said her son wanted to give him.

“I can’t take your son’s teddy bear,” the judge told her, but she persisted.

“No,” she said, “my son wants you to have his teddy bear because he says you gave him back his mother.”

Drug courts aren’t an easy fix. They require time, resources, unwavering focus from the participants and relentless follow-up from judges and their staffs. However, drug courts are an effective tool to fight the drug epidemic. Just as important, they’re helping restore lives, reunite families, and reintegrate participants back into their communities.

Mike DeWine is Ohio’s attorney general and a guest columnist.


By Mike DeWine

Mike DeWine is Ohio’s attorney general and a guest columnist.

Mike DeWine is Ohio’s attorney general and a guest columnist.