As the region's opiate epidemic continues to tear apart families and claim lives, the county's criminal justice system is taking steps to enhance services. Starting Aug. 1, a second judge is joining the felony drug court program, and the county has been awarded nearly $1 million in federal grant money to pay for staff to support both the felony and misdemeanor drug courts.

The county accepted the $974,000 multi-jurisdictional drug court grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at the end of June and expects to serve about 520 individuals with the money over the next three years.

Starting Aug. 1, Common Pleas Court Judge Christine Croce will split supervision of the felony court's Turning Point program caseload with Common Pleas Court Judge Joy Malek Oldfield, who took over the program last November. About 180 felony offenders are presently enrolled.

Misdemeanor offenders in much of the county are served by the Akron Municipal Court's Recovery Court, which is headed by municipal court Judge Jon Oldham. It's the post Oldfield held until she was elected to the common pleas court and took over from Judge Thomas A. Teodosio. About 45 individuals are presently enrolled there.

Oldfield said she was surprised to see as many as 100 people in court every Monday when she started overseeing Turning Point.

In the meantime, Croce said she had been interested in becoming part of the Turning Point program for some time. She undertook training, started attending drug court meetings with Oldfield, and has recently been granted temporary certification as a drug court judge from the Ohio Supreme Court.

Croce said she is rearranging her schedule to handle Turning Point cases on Monday afternoons after Aug. 1, while Oldfield will continue to handle cases on Monday mornings.

"As judges, we're somewhat running out of tools to help these people and hold them accountable at the same time," Croce said. "I think the unique process of Turning Point is that there are additional resources that in a regular court session we don't necessarily have.

"To see somebody get back on the straight and narrow, to see somebody get a job, to see somebody be reunited with their family and their children and become productive citizens -- that's really the most rewarding part of our job and Turning Point gives us that opportunity," she said.

Enhancing services

Under both the misdemeanor and felony programs, offenders who the court determines have a problem with drugs and who meet specific legal requirements -- and who volunteer -- undergo intensive judicial supervision, mandatory drug abuse treatment and drug testing, as well as sanctions and/or rewards. The program is a minimum of one year in length, but can extend to 18 months at the felony level.

Misdemeanor offenders who may qualify are charged with minor crimes such as paraphernalia possession, or other minor crimes that have some sort of relation to drug use. Felony cases can be as simple as possession of controlled substance -- fifth-degree felonies in the case of heroin or certain prescription drugs. By law, not everyone is eligible, such as drug traffickers.

Case management services are provided by Oriana House, an Akron-based community corrections and chemical dependency treatment agency with facilities throughout northern Ohio.

Program manager and Oriana House employee Jennifer Hawkins said the $974,000 grant will support the addition of five and a half full-time equivalent staffers to the 12 Oriana House employees who already support the program. She said the agency will be hiring a full-time lead caseworker, a full-time recovery coach and 1.5 full-time equivalent resident supervisors. Current employees will be shifted to fill the other roles.

She said Oriana House employees work daily with the courts and program participants. The agency will also be hiring a contractor to develop a program that will more effectively randomize urine screening tests.

Jeff Sturmi, deputy chief of probation at the Akron Recovery Court, said the grant will enhance trauma counseling and recovery coaching, two key aspects of rehabilitation.

He said trauma counseling is meant to help the participants identify possible underlying reasons behind their addiction.

"What we have found over the years is most of our clients who have drug dependency and drug addiction issues, when we start peeling back the onion, so to speak, we find that they have pretty significant trauma in their lives, whether that's physical abuse, verbal abuse or lots of times, sexual abuse.

"We do a really good job providing drug treatment services for our clients ... but we didn't do as good a job for our clients mentally," he said.

Ronya Habash, Turning Point probation officer, said the use of recovery coaches in drug court programs is relatively new in Ohio. She said recovery coaches are individuals who are drug-free former users who serve as mentors.

"How do you gain what we call sober support?" she asked, explaining many recovering clients need help actively participating in counseling sessions and other program requirements. "We can pair that person up with a recovery coach and they go to meetings together."

Intensive treatment

The drug court programs are the most intensive intervention available to the courts, said Oldfield.

"When we screen someone, we try to figure out what interventions have they already had in their life, have they intersected with the criminal justice system in any way before this, and do they need this level of intervention?

"When you are in the first phase of this program, you probably have between five and 10 appointments a week," she added. Those meetings may include case management, probation, seeing the court, counseling and treatment.

Teams of professionals monitor each participant's life: home visits and searches for contraband are allowed, and participation at counseling sessions is mandatory. In the early phases, there are weekly meetings with the judge in court to discuss progress and twice-weekly drug testing. Police officers and others may also contact the court to notify officials of suspicious or prohibited behavior by participants.

"The question is, do you need that kind of intervention? Some people really do," Oldfield said. "If you're a daily heroin user and you're at risk of OD ... that's an issue, versus someone who this is the first time they've been in trouble and they're at the early stages of addiction -- maybe they can go under general supervision in our probation department."

More intensive than general supervision is the common pleas court's opiate supervision program, a special division in the probation department that is less-intensive than Turning Point.

Oldfield said more than 60 percent of participants in Turning Point complete the program. How well they do in later life remains to be determined, as the research has not been conducted.

While some offenders can get charges dismissed by successfully completing the Turning Point program, other offenders may volunteer for the program following a conviction in lieu of harsher penalties.

Hawkins said even those who do not make it all the way through the program may end up benefitting in the long run.

"We also plant seeds," she said. "So, even though someone may not be a success from a statistical standpoint, they may benefit from the time they're in the program, where they've gained some knowledge in the way of treatment and recovery, or they've seen a period of success in the program ... even if someone is not successful, the hope is that they've gained something."

Eric Marotta: 330-541-9433

emarotta@recordpub.com