Ravenna -- Portage County's long-awaited drug court is giving defendants with substance abuse problems new options for treatment and supervision under the supervision of probation and local treatment programs, and helping them avoid prison or jail sentences in favor of sobriety.

The new court is awaiting final certification by the Ohio Supreme Court, but "in every other way, we are up and running," Portage County Common Pleas Judge Becky Doherty said. The drug court's docket is run through her courtroom.

Doherty has been spearheading the effort on the county level since her election to the bench in November 2014. A drug court was one of her campaign promises.

Portage County has no detox center for the thousands of residents battling substance abuse, and only a few small residential recovery programs that work with the court. Most fill up quickly, meaning many addicts end up in the Portage County jail following their arrest.

That causes overcrowding that strains the local criminal justice system, according to county officials.

A sales and use tax subcommittee appointed by the Portage County commissioners has been working out how the county will spend tax revenues on the jail overload, caused by the drug epidemic. The subcommittee is looking at possibly funding rehabilitation programs to reduce the population at the Portage County Jail.

"There are a lot of people who are addicted who are trying to get off drugs and aren't involved in the court system," Portage County Coroner Dr. Dean DePerro recently said.

In 2015, accidental overdoses killed 30 people in Portage County. The county quickly exceeded that number in 2016, according to the coroner's office.

Ohio has one of the highest rates of accidental overdose deaths in the United States. Portage County law enforcement officials estimate that 80 to 90 percent of crimes committed each year are the result of substance abuse and addiction -- including the majority of thefts, burglaries, robberies and financial crimes like forgery and identity fraud.

Members of the drug court's "treatment team" include Doherty, Portage County Adult Probation officers and representatives of public and private agencies experienced in treating substance abuse and mental health issues, including Compass Recovery, Townhall II, Coleman Professional Services and the Mental Health and Recovery Board of Portage County.

Doherty said state funding for such courts is rare. The jail tax could help provide funding for an additional probation officer, which Doherty said would "be a big help."

"We're going to be running this out of probation and through my court, so it's not like we need a ton of additional money," she said.

Final certification will allow county officials to apply for federal grants to supplement the program. Such grants are competitive, and not guaranteed, Doherty said.

Medication-Assisted Treatment, or MAT, programs using the drugs vivitrol and suboxone are other options to help addicts who find themselves in Doherty's court. Coleman and Summit Psychological Services Inc. -- which recently opened an office at 6693 N. Chestnut St. in Ravenna -- both have vivitrol programs, she said.

Doherty can't order addicts to subject themselves to vivitrol, which helps prevent relapse by "blocking" opioid receptors and preventing the pleasurable feeling of opioid use.

"The people I have come in front of me who are staying with the vivitrol program, and are going every 28 to 30 days, it really seems to help them," she said. "They're telling me it's curbing their desire for the drug. We might as well try it."

Other addicts tell Doherty they would rather go to prison than go to treatment or be out on the street, committing crimes to remain high, she said.

"It's frustrating, but I think we're making some headway," Doherty said. "Some [addicts] are realizing it's not the life they want to live and that they are destroying their families It has to be an agreement and a participation. They have to want to get better."

She said there is a good feeling when "someone comes in and says they've been sober for nine months. That makes my day."

Email: dobrien@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4154