Gov. Mike DeWine wants to expand drug courts to help fight the opioid epidemic. Do they work?

This local drug court cut rate of new felonies by more than half

Ohio looks to expand program proponents say cuts down on crime, saves lives and money.

Local drug courts reduced the number of convicted criminals who committed new felonies by more than half in at least one local court examined by the Dayton Daily News.

Between 80 and 90 percent of property crimes in the Miami Valley in recent years have been related to drug addiction, according to local prosecutors and a study from the city of Dayton. That has prompted more cities and counties to turn to drug courts as a possible solution.

In Greene County, for example, the number of all new felony cases climbed nearly 50 percent last year to 1,056.

“When you look at our caseload for felony cases, we hit record numbers,” Greene County Prosecutor Stephen Haller said. “It’s disturbing to sit there and sign indictment after indictment for possession, possession, possessing heroin, possessing fentanyl … It’s discouraging.”

People who go through drug courts receive more intensive supervision and addiction treatment instead of jail or prison time. The courts have been around since the 1990s but expanding them has been touted as a tool to fight the recent opioid crisis. Gov. Mike DeWine pledged during his campaign to add 60 of them statewide — a 60 percent increase.

RELATED: Treatment court reunites parents, kids

People in drug courts typically have committed non-violent crimes and have a drug addiction. They can be charged with drug possession or other crimes like theft or forgery. Trafficking offenses aren’t eligible.

Participants must comply with a treatment plan and meet other requirements, such as more frequent drug tests and check-ins with a probation officer.

A judge who wants to run a special court applies to the Ohio Supreme Court to do so.

In the Miami Valley, Montgomery County has three drug courts; Miami County has two; and Butler, Warren and Greene counties each have one. Statewide 56 of Ohio’s 88 counties have at least one drug court.

As the state prepares to spend more on drug courts, we wanted to find out if they are effective, including the existing programs in the Dayton region. The Dayton Daily News Path Forward team examines the most pressing issues facing our region and digs into possible solutions, including how the community can change its image as the center of the drug overdose crisis.

  

Proponents say drug courts reduce how often convicted criminals commit felonies again after finishing their sentences — known as recidivism. They target the underlying issue of addiction instead of repeatedly throwing the same people in jail or prison. The goal is to save lives and tax money, as well as reduce crime affecting communities.

We examined data from the Montgomery County Women’s Therapeutic Court and found that recidivism rates were cut by more than half when compared to the full county court’s average. Warren County’s program also had much lower rates of re-offending.

The programs work because of their holistic approach, said Judge Mary Wiseman, who presides over the Montgomery County Women’s Therapeutic Court. Some women with substance abuse disorder have had trauma in their history, she said.

“If they can’t heal from that, their risk of recidivism and their risk of relapse is very high,” she said.

Some judges have chosen to not use drug courts. The programs are more time- and cost-intensive than traditional courts — requiring more probation officers and more one-on-one interaction with each defendant. Some county leaders believe they can’t afford to hire more staff.

Judges and probation officers in local drug courts say the cost is worth it because the model gets defendants into recovery and breaks the cycle of addiction and crime, benefiting the entire community.

“You see that continual recycling of offenders and it’s very expensive,” said Tom Stickrath, DeWine’s nominee for Ohio Department of Public Safety director. “When you can break that (cycle of incarceration) through successful treatment and through the kind of work that drug courts do, you’ve not just saved the cost of incarceration but hopefully you’ve saved that long-term cost with that person.”

Reduced recidivism rates

Our investigation found that no one, including the Ohio Supreme Court unit that oversees drug court certification, tracks how those going through drug courts statewide fared long-term compared to defendants in traditional courts. The Supreme Court says it plans to start tracking recidivism and other stats from each specialized court this year.

We found that about 80 percent of those referred to both the men’s and women’s drug courts in Montgomery County in 2018 successfully completed probation. But graduation doesn’t ensure that the person won’t re-offend.

Of the 107 women who graduated from the women’s court from 2014 to 2017, we found that 75 percent have had no new criminal history since graduation. About 11 percent had new felony charges and about 11 percent had new misdemeanor charges. The county’s three-year recidivism rate for all felony convictions was 36.5 percent in 2016.

Ohio recidivism rates
Photo: Staff Writer

“In Montgomery county we often think of courts as having a recidivism rate between 30 percent and 45 percent,” Wiseman said. In her experience drug courts have felony recidivism rates between 10 and 25 percent.

After years of decline, the three-year recidivism rate statewide began to climb again in 2013, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. In 2016, the most recent year available, it surpassed 30 percent for the first time in five years.

Warren County’s drug court has stricter criteria for admission because all participants must use Vivitrol, an injection that curbs cravings for opioids and alcohol. That means some defendants’ medical circumstances — or drug they abused — aren’t a good fit for the program.

Of the 40 individuals who have gone through the Warren County program since it started in February of 2016, 22 graduated. The court didn’t say if any of them were arrested again. But the Dayton Daily News found only two of them had new felony charges in Warren County since graduation. One person died of an overdose just days after completing the program in 2017.

So the drug court’s rate of re-offending appears to be well below the overall 2016 Warren County three-year, felony recidivism rate of 31.6 percent.

RELATED: Prison plan calls for shifting 4,300 offenders to the community

The Warren County judge couldn’t be reached for comment.

A 2016 study found that those participating in Mahoning County drug courts completed probation at higher rates than people who were given only treatment in lieu of conviction with no additional support.

Reduced costs

Drug possession is the No. 1 reason men and women are sent to Ohio prisons. Property crimes are the No. 1 offense linked to re-offending.

The cost to house an inmate for one day in a state prison was $73.76 in 2017. Some of that is a fixed expense. Heating costs, for example, don’t change with the number of inmates. But reducing the number of inmates in Ohio’s prisons could cut spending on food, clothing and medical expenses.

A 2016 report by the Brennan Center for Justice noted that 79 percent of current prisoners nationwide suffer from either drug addiction or mental illness and 40 percent suffer from both.

RELATED: DeWine kicks off addiction listening tour in Dayton

Local counties couldn’t distinguish how much running a drug court costs compared to the expenses of a normal court because all of their court budgets are lumped together.

Drug courts are cheaper than prison, a 2005 University of Cincinnati study found. That report estimated that every $1 spent in a drug court could lead to a net savings of $4.73 if those programs lead to a reduction in crime.

A Virginia study in 2016 found drug courts, when compared to regular courts, saved taxpayers there an average of $20,000 per participant, even when accounting for additional costs such as more probation officers.

Local judges considering options

Several local judges the Dayton Daily News spoke to said they’d like to see more research and data on whether drug courts are effective in reducing recidivism and worth the extra time and money.

Some rural counties haven’t pursued drug courts because of the relatively small population that would qualify. In other areas the decision to forgo them has been dictated by culture and politics.

“There are some judges who have the perspective that … they just might not need a drug court,” Wiseman said. “There are also judges who adhere to a punishment-based model of criminal justice. The citizens of that county have elected an individual with that judicial perspective … and that’s their choice. We have opted for something different because we think in the long run, it’s more cost-effective at getting people disengaged from the criminal justice system.”

RELATED: Female drug offenders get second chance

The time commitment might also be a factor for some judges.

“You have to be willing to invest compassion, emotion, the time into working with people one-on-one,” said Haller, also a member of the Dayton Daily News Community Advisory Board. “Some judges say, ‘I didn’t sign on for that.’”

Judges considering drug courts also want to know if the courts are successful. Haller said what qualifies as success needs to be defined.

“What are the goals of these drug courts?” Haller said. “From a prosecutor’s point of view, it’s public safety. And if we can reduce recidivism, then we’re accomplishing that.”

DeWine’s endorsement of the drug court model and the increased volume of drug-related cases has more judges taking a serious look at them.

Greene County doesn’t have a drug court at the felony level. Judge Beth Cappelli runs a misdemeanor drug court in Fairborn Municipal Court. Greene County Common Pleas Court Judge Michael Buckwalter said he is deliberating the pros and cons of drug courts.

Clark County Common Pleas Court Presiding Judge Thomas Capper chairs the county’s Criminal Justice Council subcommittee tasked with examining the feasibility and cost of specialized courts. Clark County currently doesn’t have a drug court.

“Our local judges have all been open minded about it,” he said. “Money is always an issue.”

Which Ohio counties have drug courts?
Photo: Staff Writer

The county might need a combined treatment court for those with addictions and mental health needs, he said, based on the current case data. But he said they are in the early stages of the study.

Specialized courts certified by the Ohio Supreme Court can qualify for state and federal grants to cover some costs, like adding probation officers. The Montgomery County women’s court has two probation officers whose salaries are paid by the county general fund and one who is paid for by a grant from Ohio Mental Health and Addiction Services.

DeWine is committed to following through on his campaign pledge to add drug courts, his spokeswoman Jill Del Greco said. A timeline or how much funding will be made available hasn’t been determined, she said.

Some judges worry any state money could dry up if budget needs shift.

“What we’re hearing from our judges is that there’s concern,” said Greta Mayer, CEO of the Mental Health & Recovery Board of Clark, Greene and Madison counties. “How sustainable are these funds?”

‘A huge milestone’

Judges using the drug court model said the biggest difference is the personal connections they make with defendants.

A normal court is a very transactional environment. We spend all of maybe two minutes with somebody,” Wiseman said. “Whereas in a drug court, the judge, himself or herself, is trying to actually form that bond with the individual. That takes time. The judge reveals more of himself or herself to the client. But we’re also trying to draw the clients in.”

No one is prouder than Wiseman when a woman graduates, meaning they’ve successfully completed all the requirements of their probation. On Oct. 24, it was Melissa Rodger’s turn to thank the court.

“This is the first time (in more than 20 years) I’ve ever successfully completed probation,” she said. “There are 12 other times that I was sentenced. Once I went to prison because I couldn’t complete probation, so this is a huge milestone.”

She credits the Women’s Therapeutic Court and Wiseman with finally helping her break the cycle of addiction and crime.

“Not only do they have firm punishment, but they also have love, care and concern,” Rodgers said. “They showed me that constantly.”

READ MORE:

>> Mom of 7 rebuilding family after addiction

>> Convicted 12 times, mom turns life ‘180 degrees’ after drug court

Research went into developing the drug court model, Wiseman said. She admits she’s a big proponent of drug courts but said the stats back up her enthusiasm.

“It is cost effective and it builds people up,” she said. “This is an approach that serves to prevent citizens from being victimized, prevent further harm to the friends and family and associates of the offender and makes that offender much more likely to be successful in life.

“And when I say successful in life, I’m not just talking about not committing criminal offenses,” she said. “I’m talking about people who go out and become taxpayers and successful in their jobs. So drug courts are just this amazing little secret … that works.”

Melissa Rodgers speaks to Judge Mary Wiseman during her graduation from Montgomery County’s Women’s Therapeutic Court in October, 2018. KATIE WEDELL/STAFF
Photo: Staff Writer

ABOUT THE PATH FORWARD

Like all of you, we care deeply about our community, and want it to be the best it can be. We have formed a team to dig into the most pressing issues facing the Miami Valley. The Path Forward project, with your help and that of a 16-member community advisory board, seeks solutions to issues readers told us they were most concerned about.

Follow the project at DaytonDailyNews/PathForward and share your ideas about the addiction crisis by joining our Facebook group.

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