Joyce, Local Leaders Hail Drug Court Success03/05/20
Former Geauga County Prosecutor and U.S. Congressman Dave Joyce (R-Bainbridge Township) still remembers the reaction of a mother whose son he sent to prison years ago for a drug offense.
“She walked up and thanked me,” Joyce recalled. “She said – ‘at least I know he’s alive.’”
Joyce recounted the story at a roundtable discussion of Geauga County’s drug court program Feb. 24 at the Geauga County Sheriff’s Office in Munson Township.
The program, started last summer by Geauga County Court of Common Pleas Judge Carolyn Paschke, gives her court another option in the fight against the opioid epidemic with a specialized docket designed to keep offenders sober and out of jail.
The six-phase program starts with weekly meetings on Thursday mornings, where participants share struggles and triumphs they’ve faced since their previous appearance. It takes 18 to 24 months to complete, and is aimed at felony drug offenders, not those who “dabble” in drug use, Paschke said.
She told Joyce it’s a different atmosphere than the typical courtroom.
“People, they come in and we tell them we’re happy you’re here, because these are people who are known to blow things off. These are people who haven’t always done what they were supposed to,” Paschke said.
If the drug court participant has had a week of clean tests and met goals like attending rehab meetings, they are rewarded with positive reinforcement.
“I usually give them a candy bar,” Paschke said, adding the court also gives gift cards for gas to help people get to and from work.
Present at the table to discuss the successes – and future needs – of the program were Paschke, Geauga County Commissioner Ralph Spidalieri, Prosecutor Jim Flaiz, Sheriff Scott Hildenbrand, Chief Deputy Thomas Rowan and Chester Township Fire Chief John Wargelin.
“The judge will tell you – I was pretty skeptical at first of the drug court and I told them that,” Hildenbrand said. “But I really am starting to see some success stories out of it.”
The sheriff said the success of the drug docket has brought up memories of a friend’s son who did not survive his opiate addiction. The court who handled that case, he said, made it almost impossible for the young man to survive.
“They wouldn’t let him have a driver’s license, but he had to keep working,” Hildenbrand explained. “His parents had to drive him to all the (rehab) meetings.”
The treatment for opioid addictions could take years or even a lifetime, he said.
Flaiz agreed, adding most people, even in affluent communities in Geauga County, know someone who has died of an overdose.
“Whenever I do a talk, I always say raise your hand if a family member or close friend has died of a heroin overdose,” Flaiz said. “Almost everybody raises their hand.”
Flaiz credited Spidalieri with the idea of using funds from Ohio’s casino tax in 2012 to increase the prosecutor’s ability to handle drug cases. The money allowed his department to add a felony assistant drug prosecutor to handle the increased case load.
In addition, the court got an extra probation officer and the sheriff’s office was able to start a narcotics detective unit with the money, Flaiz said.
Spidalieri said the initial layout for the increased response was between $350,000 to $500,000 and is now normalized into the county budget.
He added the county has caught criticism for the spending, but adjustments have been made through attrition to help cover the extra costs.
“But during that time that we had the crisis, and there was such a severity of trying to get our arms around it, we needed to have that injection of cash to be able to do that for the extra help,” Spidalieri told Joyce.
The congressman asked if additional federal funds could be directed to the county, where they would be put to best use. Spidalieri and Flaiz both answered the Geauga County Department of Job and Family Services would benefit the most from extra cash.
“JFS, I would say, is probably one of the most challenging that we are facing with costs and with personnel,” Spidalieri said.
He told Joyce the county adjusted the department’s pay schedule last year in an attempt to keep up with surrounding counties.
The drug court and other county drug response programs are covered by grants, Spidalieri said.
A four-year, $500,000 federal grant through the U.S. Bureau of Justice Affairs has allowed Paschke’s court to provide rent and transportation assistance, as people often enter the program after losing their driver’s license or they do not have access to a vehicle.
Paschke said the program is popular with employers who, because of historically low unemployment rates, find it hard to fill open positions, with many prospective employees unable to pass a drug test. While her court can’t guarantee someone will stay sober forever, employers know they will be tested twice a week and problems will be caught right away, she said.
Wargelin explained his department has increased its use of Narcan in response to the opioid crisis, even handing it out to family members of those who have had previous overdoses.
Overdoses have been coming down after peaking in late 2018 and into 2019, the chief said.
“In our job, we’re taught to save lives,” Wargelin said. “We’re not (taught) to be judgmental. That’s up to everyone else to figure out. So we just want to do our part of saving a life, and hopefully we never see them again if they do get treatment.”
Hildenbrand said at first, members of the public criticized the use of Narcan.
“You know, (they said) let ‘em die,” Hildenbrand said. “But they’re not all bad people, they’re people that got mixed up and caught that addiction and can’t get away from it.”
Joyce said as a prosecutor, he was on the front end of the opioid crisis as heroin and fentanyl use was starting to increase.
The approach of Paschke’s court is much different from the way addiction was treated then, he added.
“The idea is that a lot of these people are good citizens, but for the addiction,” Joyce said.
Congress is not going to pass a law to stop the addiction, but Joyce said he can do some things to make sure people at the local level have the wherewithal to do their jobs.
“If we take these people from people that are committing crimes to people that are going to work, supporting their children, taking care of their aging parents, paying their taxes, look at the ripple effect that’s going to have on the community,” Paschke said. “Even if it’s only a handful, I think we all benefit from their success.”