Sunday, May 27, 2018
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Judging addiction

Lucas County Common Pleas Court judges voted this month to move forward with an adult felony drug court. Amid northwest Ohio’s heroin and opioid epidemic, the new docket is welcome and long overdue.

Judge Stacy Cook, the court’s leading advocate of a specialized drug docket, is working out a plan to present to the Ohio Supreme Court. Local judges will review the plan next month. The new court, including two judges, should start operating early next year and become fully certified within a year.

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Drug courts, which have been used for more than two decades, are not just an innovative idea. They have a record of success, in Ohio and around the country, at effectively treating nonviolent, repeat offenders who struggle with addiction. With close supervision, monitoring, and immediate but shorter sanctions, drug courts have moved them from addiction and crime to long-term recovery.

The drug court is applauded by Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp and Carol Contrada, president of the Board of County Commissioners. Ms. Contrada now must help ensure that the new court gets the added employees it needs, possibly including a drug court coordinator, bailiff, and probation officers.

Drug courts also require more treatment resources in the community. Local providers must ensure that meeting these needs does not divert resources from other people struggling with addiction.

Equally important, local providers must find ways to get people into treatment, especially medicated-assisted treatment, far more quickly. A Dec. 14 column by The Blade’s deputy editorial page editor, Jeff Gerritt, portrayed a local heroin addict who died of an overdose while waiting for treatment. Providers need to do a better job of getting desperate addicts immediate help.

In preparing the new docket, Judge Cook should talk not only to successful drug court judges, such as Jim Slagle of Marion County, but also to providers to accelerate admissions and treatment.

Among the new local initiatives that the court could build on are the addiction resource unit run by the Lucas County Sheriff’s Office and a plan to start giving offenders Vivitrol shots while they’re in the county jail. Vivitrol is one of several drugs used in medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction.

The new court will also make broader reforms even more essential: maintaining Ohio’s Medicaid expansion, building more recovery housing, and increasing inpatient treatment beds by lifting the federal cap on Medicaid reimbursement for providers with more than 16 beds.

Nearly 50 adult drug courts operate successfully in 27 Ohio counties. Two focus solely on heroin and opioids. Except for Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, Lucas County is the state’s largest metropolitan county without a specialized adult felony drug docket.

With more than 440,000 residents, Lucas County is battling an opioid and heroin epidemic that caused, in the first 10 months of this year, 123 fatal heroin-related overdoses in the Toledo area.

Lucas County’s new drug court will not be a panacea, as Scott Sylak, executive director of the county Mental Health and Recovery Services Board, points out. The two judges will help possibly 100 to 150 people a year, compared to the 2,000 people whom local courts refer to community-based drug and alcohol treatment.

The local board funds 22 community treatment and prevention agencies, It serves 8,000 to 9,000 people who are struggling with drug and alcohol addictions, about two thirds of which are opioid-related. “We support a drug court, but need to remember that this is but a single tool in the toolbox,” Mr. Sylak told The Blade’s editorial page.

Despite these challenges, the new drug court is another sign of this community’s response to a national epidemic of addiction. Lucas County’s last adult drug court ended nearly a decade ago, partly because of funding problems. Continuing to lock up nonviolent drug offenders, at an annual cost of more than $25,000 each, is ineffective and inhumane.

Of the more than 20,000 people who enter Ohio’s prisons each year, the share of inmates admitted for opioid and heroin-related crimes — including possession and petty theft — has increased more than 400 percent in the past 13 years. Roughly 1,700 people a year go to Ohio prisons for such offenses, at an annual cost to taxpayers of $45 million.

Ohio courts need to divert more of them to community-based treatment. Special dockets that focus on drug-related offenses and addiction do that best.

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