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home : most recent : health care October 23, 2018

9/30/2018 11:48:00 AM
Hancock County Drug court faces changes due to opioid crisis
Hancock County Circuit Court Judge Scott Kirk congratulates a participant in the drug court program. Staff photo by Tom Russo
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Hancock County Circuit Court Judge Scott Kirk congratulates a participant in the drug court program. Staff photo by Tom Russo

Caitlin VanOverberghe, Daily Reporter

Are they drug-free? Law-abiding? Healthy? Alive?

For the self-identified addicts who participate in the county’s Drug Court, which Ingle oversees, success can be a wide range of things — especially when the substances they struggle with are more potent and powerful than the program was designed to help people overcome.

Opioid addiction has forced Hancock County’s Drug Court to change, its leaders say.

The program, which started locally in 2004, was originally designed to help those who were repeatedly arrested for operating a vehicle while intoxicated to curb their alcohol use. Through intensive treatment and monitoring, participants take steps toward sobriety and learn to change their behavior. Members of the local judicial system — judges, prosecutors, attorneys and probation officers — walk with them during their journey, helping whenever they can.

But as heroin and prescription painkillers gripped hold of more and more residents, leaders of the program were forced to make adjustments in order to help more people, Ingle said. They’ve opened the program up to those who commit a select offense, other than drunken-driving. They’ve incorporated more counseling and make medications, like the opioid blocker Vivitrol, available to those who would like to try it.

Currently, they have a 49 percent graduation rate — higher than the national average of 40 percent but not quite where they’d like it to be, Ingle said.

So, she keeps an open mind about success. It means different things with different people, and sometimes it falls outside the scope of the program, she said.

She finds confidence in the fact they’ve reduced recidivism. Of those who graduate from the program — Ingle is required to track them for three years following their graduation — 80 percent will not offend again or will not offend to the same extent.

But keeping someone alive — that’s the ultimate success, she said.

“That keeps me coming back,” she said.

The structure of drug court has remained roughly the same since the program came to Hancock County in 2004. Its docket is overseen by Hancock Circuit Court Judge Scott Sirk, who succeeded Richard Culver, the circuit court judge who started drug court locally.

Potential participants are identified by the prosecutor’s office following an arrest and then referred to Ingle for an evaluation.

By enrolling in the program, participants agree to plead guilty to the crime they’ve committed. Drug court becomes their sentence.

They pay a $500 fee to participate and agree to undergo random drug tests. They’re required to get a job, complete hours of community service and attend bi-weekly meetings with a panel of leaders in the local criminal justice system.

The drug court hearings are different from the traditional criminal hearings, where defense attorneys and prosecutors go toe-to-toe to decide an offender’s future. Instead, they sit side-by-side, surrounded by probation officers and therapists. The judge isn’t behind the bench, looking down on the proceedings; but standing on the courtroom floor to give a sense of equality.

Together, they converse with the offender, talking about the days and weeks that have passed since they last saw each other, about the things they’ve struggled with and improvements they need to make. And it’s all with the hope the person will overcome an addiction.

The program was originally only open to those who pleaded guilty to drunken-driving charges. Opioid addiction, however, has forced the program to expand, to incorporate more of the most common nonviolent crimes committed by those who point to substance abuse as the root of their wrongdoing, Ingle said.

In 2008, drug court began accepting those arrested for obtaining a controlled substance by fraud and possession of a controlled substance. A few years later, theft, burglary, fraud and forgery were also added.

This year, the program expanded again to include those convicted of possession of a syringe. Filings of this charge have skyrocketed since the opioid epidemic took hold of the state, records show.

Last year, 114 people were charged with unlawful possession of a syringe, records show. Sixty-six people faced the charge in 2016, and 17 faced it in 2015. Prior to that, filings were in the single digits, records show.

Intervening soon after an arrest is important, Ingle said; they try to get drug court participants into the program within 30 days of the person being charged.

Soon, they hope to develop a pamphlet that local police officers can hand out to those they take into custody that will teach them about drug court. Officers will know best if the person they’ve met on the streets needs help because they’ll likely have met the person a few times before, Ingle said.

Related Stories:
• Opioid treatment center coming to Henry County

Copyright 2018 Daily Reporter

Editor, John C. DePrez Jr.; Executive Editor, Carol Rogers; Publishers: IBRC and IAR

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