Overdose deaths continue to rise in Southwest Ohio, and the opioid epidemic is taking a toll on courts as more and more addicts end up behind bars for drug-related crimes. To help mitigate overcrowding, some Miami Valley counties are launching special drug courts.
The courts offer nonviolent addicts a chance to avoid jail and get the services they need to stay clean and out of trouble for good—but it’s no easy fix.
A crowd of about 80 people came out to see Sandra Lamb graduate from Clinton County’s U-Turn Recovery Docket - a drug court program that requires participants to be clean and sober for 18 months.
And the crowd got a surprise. After Lamb talked about her recovery, she performed a rap she wrote about heroin addiction:
“I do good in life but the dope keeps me from doing better / Receiving letter and mail, so I’m mailing letters.”
Clinton County is small—just over 40,000 people—and it’s been struggling with opioid issues. So, Lamb’s success is a big deal for the court and the community.
It’s also a milestone for Lamb. She says completing the program has given her new hope for the future. She was able to avoid jail and put herself in a position to regain custody of her children.
“I’m trying to get my kids back. I have a seven and an eight year old,” Lamb said. “Unfortunately, it’s my mother who has them that’s battling me so hard. So, that makes it even tougher and more of a struggle.”
Sandra Lamb is one of the lucky ones. On the other end of the spectrum is Jason Green, who used to go by the name Jake. He was originally scheduled to graduate with Lamb but he relapsed and overdosed.
Judge John Rudduck, who oversees the U-Turn Recovery Court, talked about Jake’s death during a court session earlier this year. Rudduck pointed to the chair Jake used to sit in. It’s empty now, and there’s a black sash with Jake’s name on it.
Rudduck told the participants the chair will stay that way.
“I want it to be a visual reminder,” Rudduck said, “Not just of Jake, but how you can’t get too confident. Because you can be in here one day getting promoted and [having] people clapping for you, and you can be dead the next day.”
No Room in Prison
There are over 50,000 people incarcerated in Ohio, and Rudduck estimates nearly a third low-level offenders who could be better treated in the community. He started the U-Turn Recovery Court two years ago in response to the number of cases he was dismissing as a common pleas court judge.
“I was dismissing cases because people were dying. They were dead, and they were young people,” Rudduck says. “I started realizing after 30 years on the bench that maybe we needed a different way of doing things.”
Rudduck says that jail and prison time seldom solve addiction problems and that drug sentencing laws are sending too many addicts to jail.
“We got to do something about it,” Rudduck says. “We’re at capacity. The director of prisons, Gary Mohr, says he can’t build another prison.”
Rudduck says drug courts are “designed to be therapeutic,” and that’s pretty apparent when court is session.
The judge doesn’t wear a robe, and the participants don’t sit at the defense desk. They fill up the jury box first, which gives you the impression they’re being judged by their peers—and themselves.
At the end of each court session the judge asks a different participant to stand up and talk about their recovery. A few months ago, a woman named Amie read a poem she wrote.
“This addiction had me for such a long time.
It was hard to think I would ever be fine.
I just wanted one more time, one more time to get high.”
When Amie finished the poem, Rudduck came out from behind the bench. He told Amie he was proud of her and gave her a hug.
Amie has four children. After court, she told me what the program has meant to her.
“It has gave me hope every day to know that the court isn’t just against you,” Amie said. “You don’t always have to be scared and you don’t have to be away from your family. Because I kept running and running and running from my problems, and finally, I got sick of running.”
But a few weeks later, Amie was on the run again. She failed a drug test. Judge Rudduck gave her a warning and said he might have to send her to inpatient rehab. But she never came back to court. The judge issued a warrant for her arrest, and she’s currently in jail awaiting her next hearing.
And some good news on this story. Sandra Lamb, who was rapping at her drug court graduation, recently regained custody of her children and is now working full time.