Drug courts key in opioid fight

In the big, complex world of Ohio’s opioid problems, drug courts may only be a small part of the solution.

But they are an important component, nonetheless, and Hancock County is fortunate to have one in place in common pleas court. The need has never been greater for a program that provides certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders the tools they need to become functioning citizens instead of convicted felons.

The first drug court here began in 2014 under the oversight of Judge Reg Routson, and the second is now run by Judge Jonathan Starn. The first two graduates from Starn’s court graduated this week. We wish them well. As with any graduation, the event marks an important accomplishment, but not an end. A person fighting addiction is often said to be in recovery for life.

Drug courts, like the ones operated here, provide no easy escape from criminal responsibility.

First, an offender must qualify and agree to give up their rights — to due process, to an attorney, to remain silent, to free association, and to protections against unlawful searches — in order to participate.

Once in, the person is provided a detailed treatment plan, designed specifically for them. They must attend all counseling sessions and make themselves available for any and all drug tests. They are also subject to various conditions of community control.

Judges have direct involvement in each drug court case, and their role in the process is considered critical to success.

Noncompliance with terms and conditions of the program can result in sanctions, including removal from the program. If so, it means their criminal case picks up where it left off.

The benefits, though, are huge for those committed to changing their lives. They have a community-based support network and access to the best treatment options.

Still, success isn’t guaranteed. Only one in two people who begin drug court complete it. That may reflect the strong addictions many face with opioids and the high standards that are set for the program. For those who aren’t yet ready to deal with their addiction, drug court isn’t an easy path.

Graduation requires a strong commitment and desire to better oneself. A participant must remain drug and alcohol free for at least three months and complete all aspects of their treatment plan. They must also pay all court costs, supervision fees and make restitution if ordered.

Studies have shown recidivism can be reduced with drug courts, along with the public cost, compared to the traditional criminal justice system.

While no panacea for the opioid epidemic, the work of drug courts may be more important than ever. With opioid-related deaths still rising in Ohio, every participant represents someone who could potentially become the next overdose statistic.

So far, no Hancock County drug court graduate has died from an overdose. That suggests drug courts do work and community support for those lifesaving efforts must continue.