Editor’s Note

Per drug court protocol, graduates’ last names have been omitted to protect their privacy.

MANSFIELD — For 15 years, Melissa P.’s on-and-off drug use brought her nothing but trouble. 

Now, she’s starting a new chapter.

“I’m going to finally do something with my life,” she said.

“I want to go work at New Beginnings, which is a rehab center here in Mansfield, and help other addicts achieve what I’ve achieved this past year.”

Melissa said she’ll need another year of sobriety under her belt before she can work at a treatment center, but she took a step towards that goal Thursday by graduating from the Richland County Substance Abuse Treatment Court.

Often referred to simply as Richland County Drug Court, the program allows low-level, non-violent offenders to begin an intensive program of treatment and accountability in lieu of incarceration.

The court celebrated 10 graduates during a ceremony on Thursday. This marked the 21st graduating class since the program was founded in 1997.

Brother Dan Gates, a local chaplain who spent years working with drug-court clients, delivered the benediction and a reminder. 

“Today, you begin the next leg of your journey and that journey is all about living freely, forever,” he said.

“You’ve been given invaluable tools and skills. Apply them and you can and you will be successful. When you find yourself struggling, reach out for support — but be sure you reach out to the right people.”

Richland County Drug Court is a collaboration between judges, probation officers, treatment providers, law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys and most importantly, the participants themselves.

Common Pleas Court Judge Brent Robinson said the program saves taxpayer dollars, reduces recidivism and gives participants a chance turn their lives around.

“These are 10 individuals who have overcome addiction, broken the cycle, become sober, responsible and productive citizens and members of our community,” he said at the onset of the ceremony.

“That’s not an easy thing to do.”

In order to graduate, participants must complete treatment and be clean and sober. They also have to pay all their court fines and fees, not incur any new charges and get a job if possible. 

The intensive program also includes close supervision by the court and probation officers. Participants meet twice a month in court, receive home visits from probation officers and undergo random drug testing.

Most participants stay in the program for between 18 and 24 months.

Robinson said the court’s graduation rate has risen over the years and estimated it’s around 85 percent who begin the program.

Naumoff said the number has likely risen due to an increase in available methods like medically-assisted treatment (MAT).

“Our supervising officers are really up-to-date on everything. They really get to know the different methods that are being used,” he said.

“There’s a new wave now that really pushes the physical fitness aspect. That is something that I’ve looked into, it might be something we consider downtown the road.”

Melissa was assigned to drug court after being arrested with illegal substances in her possession. She spent 63 days in rehab. After her release, she said she hit the ground running and never looked back.

Drug court’s success stories don’t just impact participants. They have ripple effects on family and friends as well.

Melissa’s mother Diane blinked back tears of joy at the graduation ceremony. 

“I’m just so tickled,” she said. “I spent a lot of years worrying and I don’t have to do that anymore.”

Diane said it was hard to describe the change she’s seen take place over the last two years.

“She’s bright. She’s clear. She’s her former self,” she said. “We’re getting our baby back.”

Richland County’s drug court program was one of the first in Ohio. In 2001, the National Association of Drug Court Professionals selected it as one of 22 National Mentor Court Programs.

Numerous studies now attest to the effectiveness of drug courts for both recovery and recidivism. But Commons Pleas Judge Phil Naumoff said the idea wasn’t popular when Richland County’s program was first founded.

“In those days, when Judge Hansen started this program, the consensus among the community was, ‘Just lock them up. They’re criminals,’ ” Naumoff said.

pull quote Melissa

“It gives you the opportunity to realize that you do have potential,” Melissa said. “I’m not just a drug addict, I am somebody.”

“As a former defense attorney, I can tell you it was a lifeline for a lot of my clients.”

Advocates say drug courts also save money for communities. According to the Legacy Court Family Foundation, drug courts save between $3,000 and $13,000 per client in taxpayer dollars. These cost savings reflect reduced prison costs, revolving-door arrests and trials and reduced victimization.

Naumoff said the court doesn’t track recidivism rates after the program ends. Other county probation programs tend to have a success rate between 70 and 80 percent, meaning that clients don’t re-offend within a three-year period. Naumoff said he believes the success rate for drug court is likely higher.

Graduates said they benefited from drug court’s accountability and structure. The judges behind the program said the ultimate determinant of success is the clients themselves.

“I’ve had people walk up to me and say ‘Oh, thank you, you saved my life,’ ” Henson said.

“And I say, ‘No. I gave you a chance to save your own life and you did. I’m proud of you.’ ”

Melissa said treatment helped her realize her own self-worth.

“It gives you the opportunity to realize that you do have potential. They’re not just throwing you in jail and letting you rot,” she said.

“Going to New Beginnings made me realize a lot of things about myself. I’m not just a drug addict, I am somebody.”

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