Ohio Tackles Opioid Epidemic

Opioid abuse in Ohio is bad and getting worse. Increases in the number of foster-care children in agency custody, the number of poisonings and overdose deaths, and the rising use of the opioid reversal drug naloxone all speak to this ongoing tragedy.

Q: How is Ohio combatting the opioid epidemic?

A: Ohio is tackling the problem in a variety of ways that include tracking prescription pill purchases through a statewide database, advising doctors on proper dosage limits, initiating a youth drug prevention program, providing access to medication-assisted treatment and behavioral health treatment to participants in drug courts and other specialized dockets, and seeking solutions on a regional level.

Q: How are Ohio’s drug courts using their treatment-focused, holistic approach to help offenders?

A: The drug courts establish written clinical and legal criteria that identify which types of health conditions and offenses or charges exclude an offender or make an offender eligible for help. Judges order professional assessments to determine which of these offenders should participate in the drug court docket. The assessments identify those who have the greatest need for treatment and whose treatment is most likely to eliminate future criminal behavior. They also establish each participant’s treatment plan requirements. The judge oversees a treatment team that includes probation officers, community treatment providers and other relevant parties. The team monitors each participant’s compliance with the treatment plan and other court requirements. Treatment often involves medication, but medication alone can’t fully rehabilitate persons suffering from an opioid use disorder. A holistic approach includes “Recovery-Oriented Systems of Care,” such as counseling and other behavioral therapies that promote long-term recovery. Drug courts provide the monitoring, encouragement and accountability—including the potential for incarceration—needed to keep persistent, repeat offenders engaged in treatment.

Q: Is this approach working?

A: A preliminary report about the effectiveness of the first phase of a pilot program was released at the end of 2015 with promising results. After six months in the program, participants showed a significant decrease in heroin use and criminal justice involvement and a significant increase in stable housing

situations. Also, twice as many were employed. The state is currently studying whether participants are benefitting from the intensive treatment they are getting through certified drug courts in the 22 counties that have received additional funding for medication-assisted treatment of opioid-addicted offenders.

Q: What must a court do to add a drug court docket to its services?

A: Ohio courts that operate specialized dockets such as drug courts must apply to the Supreme Court of Ohio’s Specialized Docket Section. The Supreme Court has adopted 12 standards to create a minimum level of uniform practices, but local courts are still allowed to innovate and tailor their specialized dockets so they can respond to local needs and resources. The standards spell out the certification procedure. They require courts to engage in a planning process for their specialized docket programs, use a non-adversarial approach, hold regular treatment team meetings, and conduct regular status review hearings for individuals placed in the programs. The Supreme Court does not decide which specialized dockets to certify, however. Rather, a 22-member Commission on Specialized Dockets—composed of judges and court personnel who operate specialized dockets around the state—applies the certification requirements and determines which programs will be certified.

Q: What is the Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative?

A: In August 2016, the Supreme Court of Ohio hosted delegations from nine states, the federal government, and other criminal justice partners to engage on a regional level about ways to combat the opioid epidemic. During a meeting in Cincinnati, the partners discussed and created state and regional action plans to more effectively rehabilitate offenders who enter the criminal justice system because of an opioid use disorder. The nine states have pledged to make the region a blueprint for policy and practice for others to follow. The initiative is the first in the nation to bring together state judicial leaders, treatment providers and medical experts to explore regional solutions to a problem that knows no borders. The opening summit began a year-long program of regional policy planning and development across state criminal justice, public health, family support, and child protection systems. Meetings, strategy sessions, and opportunities to challenge the status quo will continue.

This “Law You Can Use” consumer legal information column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was prepared by the Supreme Court of Ohio’s Specialized Dockets Section. Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. It is not intended as legal advice. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.