Stephen Rangel’s years of trouble with the law in Canton, Ohio began not long after his discharge as a technician from the U.S. Army in 1990. He was self-medicating his depression and anger with too much alcohol, then cocaine, and eventually crack. His first offenses were relatively minor — driving under the influence and less serious domestic violence charges.
But as his mental health and addiction worsened, so did his crimes. In 2004, he was convicted with his first felony — domestic violence — and spent a year in jail. By 2011, Rangel had been arrested 63 times in Stark County. Charges included child endangerment, receiving stolen property, aggravated robbery, and felony escape.
Rangel’s behavior took a critical turn in the spring of 2008 when he stole a car, robbed a convenience store at gunpoint, and, when pulled over by police, slipped out of his handcuffs and fled on foot. Recaptured and sitting in the back of a police cruiser, Rangel remembers telling himself, “I can’t do this anymore.”
Luckily for Rangel, after serving more than four years in prison, his case came before Stark County Common Pleas Judge Taryn Heath in 2013. She decided that Rangel would make a good candidate for the county’s new Honor Court for veterans and active duty service members who have committed felonies that allow for probation.
Stark County Honor Court is one of Ohio’s 245 specialty courts (sometimes called “specialized dockets” or “problem-solving courts”) aimed at providing treatment and services rather than jail time for offenders like Rangel, who suffer from mental health and addiction problems.
The judge works with a team to develop a case plan for each defendant and to closely supervise and support the defendant’s compliance. Studies show that specialized courts have greater success than traditional courts in keeping repeat offenders out of jail — saving both lives and the higher costs of imprisonment.
Steve Rangel Veteran and Honor Court mentor.
Rangel is a good example. Since graduating from the yearlong Honor Court program four years ago, he has been both arrest-free and drug-free. In fact, he now serves as a volunteer mentor to other veterans in the program.
“I’m a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a mentor — an actual asset to society,” he says. “Five years ago, if somebody told me I was going to be all that, I would have laughed it off.”
What made the difference? Besides the support from his wife and family, Rangel says, it was the supportive environment he found in Honor Court.
“From the very start, I noticed the care and concern from the prosecutor and defense attorney and, for the first time, I saw the judge as a person,” he says, as opposed to an authority figure.
Just as important, Honor Court connected Rangel with agencies and professionals who were able to diagnose his root problem for the first time — Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — and provide him proper treatment.
“I got VA (Veterans Affairs) services I didn’t even know existed,” he says.
The number of problem-solving courts in Ohio and across the country has soared since their inception in Florida 30 years ago, according to the National Center for State Courts.
Drug Courts for helping offenders with addiction problems are the most common type, with more than 3,000 in the U.S. and over 100 in Ohio. Other types of specialized courts in Ohio include those devoted to issues of mental health (43), family drug dependency (30), veterans (23), and re-entry after imprisonment (12), according to data from the Ohio Supreme Court.
Specialized courts must meet certain basic requirements before being certified by the Ohio Supreme Court, but they can differ widely in the services they provide and the success they achieve in keeping their graduates sober and law-abiding.
On average, drug court graduates are more than twice as likely to remain arrest-free a year after leaving the program than other offenders — a 75 percent success rate compared to 30 percent for traditional courts, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP).
Stark County Common Pleas Judge Taryn Heath displays a plaque presented to her during the Stark county Honor Court.
Veteran court graduates have an even higher rate of success — nine out of 10 are arrest-free a year later, according to the NADCP. Stark County Honor Court prides itself on a 94 percent success rate among its graduates, many of whom were convicted felons at high risk of being repeat offenders before entering the program, Heath says.
Specialized courts also save taxpayers’ money. The average annual cost per participant in a drug or veterans court is $7,000 — less than a third of the $22,265 needed on average to imprison an offender, Heath says.
Problem-solving courts use a carrot-and-stick approach to deal with the underlying issues that lead to repeat offenses. Those issues can include mental illness, substance abuse, unemployment, and homelessness. The stick for compliance, of course, is the threat of jail time. The carrot is a combination of treatment and services that require a team approach to first assess the needs of the defendant and then find the resources to meet those needs.
Stark County Honor Court goes well above and beyond the state requirements for a specialized court — a big reason for its high success rate among even the worst offenders.
“It sets the gold standard for other specialized courts in Ohio,” says Eve Stratton, a retired justice of the Ohio Supreme Court and a pioneer in establishing specialty courts in Ohio.
Stark County Honor Court has gathered a team of addiction, mental health, and other professionals to assess each participant’s needs and then connect them with the VA and community-based services they need. It also runs its own commissary to provide emergency food and clothing for veterans and offers perks for good behavior that include fuel cards and bus tokens.
A key to its success has been recruiting and training a cadre of veterans who volunteer to work as mentors with the participants. Mentors take a personal interest in each participant, meeting with them outside court and appearing by their side during court sessions. Among the court’s mentors are the Louisville Police Chief and a Stark County Sheriff Deputy.
Unfortunately, far fewer resources are found in rural areas of Ohio where the prevalence of opioid addiction is worse, says Keith Durkin, a professor of sociology at Ohio Northern University in Ada. Durkin called the opioid crisis “the greatest public health threat since the Spanish Flu of 1918” that killed 675,000 Americans.
“We’re fortunate in Hardin County that everyone is on the same page — the courts, the sheriff, the police — when it comes to drug court,” Durkin says. “But we still have a couple of challenges — a shortage of detox and rehabilitation centers locally as well as providers who can prescribe [treatment medications].”
The result in many less populated areas of Ohio is that drug court participants often have to drive long distances or find other means of transportation to get the services they need, sometimes venturing into the same urban neighborhoods where they purchased the drugs to begin with, Durkin says.
Worse, he says, research shows that rural and small-town residents are often ashamed to seek treatment because of the greater stigma there associated with addiction “because of a tradition of self-reliance,” Durkin says.
There’s also the greater possibility that if you do seek services you will encounter someone you know or are related to in the treatment system.
The passage of Issue I, which lowers the penalties and jail time for offenders convicted of possessing smaller amounts of drugs in Ohio, might have dramatically reduced the effectiveness of drug courts across the state by taking “the stick” out of the hands of judges, Durkin says.
“When we don’t have the threat (of significant jail time) I don’t know how else we’re going to get compliance,” he says.
But David Jaros, a former public defender and a professor of law at the University of Baltimore, disagrees. He believes “the stick” of jail time can force many addicts into treatment who aren’t ready and, when they fail to comply, result in even more jail time than if they hadn’t entered drug court.
“People don’t want to be addicted to drugs,” he says. “If there were some magic pill out there that would end addiction, they would take it. I think people over-estimate the value of that stick.”
The key to a successful drug court, Jaros says, is a judge who is flexible enough to make concessions for relapsed offenders rather than throwing them in jail.
“If judges don’t realize that users will often fail,” he says, “then they’re not serving the interest of the defendant and they’re wasting valuable resources.”
Judges who preside over specialized courts are, in essence, volunteering their extra time without extra pay from the state, one reason there aren’t more such courts in Ohio, Heath says.
“A judge has to have a passion for the project,” she says. “It’s just not something every judge is interested in doing.”
Heath also says that, if Ohio is serious about tackling the opioid crisis and the problems of veterans, its political leaders need to look at giving more support to specialized courts.
“Clearly,” she says, “our legislators need to become educated about this approach.”
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The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the Ohio State Bar Foundation.