Indiana’s court system recently crossed an important milestone. It didn’t occur with a lot fanfare, but the occasion was an important one in the fight against ills that have resulted in too-early obituaries and overflowing jails.

The Indiana Office of Court Services announced the opening of the state’s 100th problem-solving court, in Pulaski County. Instead of going before a judge to argue evidence, prosecutors and defense lawyers there will work side-by-side with counselors and others to assist military veterans who want help with substance abuse and mental health issues. Instead of going to jail for their crimes, they will be given a fighting chance at rehabilitation and becoming productive members of society.

In Hancock County, we already have seen the value of these problem-solving courts, which are now in 50 counties. We have one of the first ones ever established, Hancock County Drug Court, started in 2004 by then-Judge Richard Culver of Hancock Circuit Court. His successor, Judge Scott Sirk, has built on the program along with the drug court coordinator, Beth Ingle.

Drug court — like all the problem-solving courts — attempts to short-circuit the cycle that burdens the criminal justice system: recidivism. Many people in the Hancock County Jail today have been there before. Without some kind of intervention — a sound strategy that interdicts that likelihood to repeat past mistakes — they’ll likely wind up there again.

That’s why problem-solving courts such as Hancock County Drug Court are so important. Upwards of 80 percent of the people who “graduate” from the program here do not continue a life of crime in the three years their cases are tracked after they leave, Ingle told the Daily Reporter for a story last fall. They largely embrace their recovery and work to become good citizens.

People in the program — numbering 20 or so at any one time — meet frequently with a team of advisers that include counselors, probation officers, community corrections officials, lawyers and Sirk. Rather than negotiating plea agreements and handing down sentences, they talk about life’s challenges and how to confront them.

Like any similar program, it’s not perfect, and it’s not for everyone. Relapses or new crimes force out about half of enrollees. Some defendants calculate that doing jail time is better than two years of closely supervised oversight. But every success story means that’s one less person taking up space in jail. More importantly, it means a life has been changed positively.

Sirk would like to expand the problem-solving courts here. He envisions a veterans court like the one established recently in Pulaski County, and he also talks about establishing a mental health court, of which only seven exist in the state. In a county where ready access to mental health care is woeful, that should be a priority.

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