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Ohio Governor Wants 30 New Drug Courts to Combat Opioid Crisis

Governor Mike DeWine recently released his proposed budget for Ohio which includes asking for $7.5 million over two years to create 30 new drug courts in the Buckeye State. The proposal is Ohio’s latest in a series of moves to combat the opioid epidemic in a state that has seen more deaths and overdoses per capita than any other but West Virginia. The new courts would add to the current 150 drug courts already in the state. The proposal is the first major move from the governor’s desk against the crisis.

DeWine believes the drug court system, also known as specialty dockets, are critical in stemming the flow of drug abuse. “I think what a drug court does give a person some real structure, some discipline, it gives them a pathway that if they follow it, they’re gonna make it,” said DeWine.

Ohio already has drug courts in several of the harder hit counties including Franklin, Hocking, and Mahoning. 56 of Ohio’s 88 counties currently have drug court programs with some counties featuring multiple dockets. Several parts of Ohio, especially rural regions, have no system in place.

Before the budget’s release DeWine spent time with Judge John Durkin whom implemented Mahoning County’s specialty docket program twenty years ago. DeWine wants to see the same success for the rest of system as seen in Mahoning County system – one of the most successful drug courts in the U.S. “We have people who care. We have some of the best treatment in the state of Ohio,” said Durkin.

DeWine also got to hear from Jessica Lee, one of Mahoning County’s program ‘graduates.’ Lee was sent to the program after her opioid addiction landed her in the court system. Despite the mental headaches and pervasive guidelines to graduate the program, Lee believes Durkin’s court saved her life. “If I hadn’t been arrested, and got a felony and came here, I would have died,” she said. The governor points to her success as a top reason for spreading the specialty docket system around the state. “They’re giving back, they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. It saves taxpayers a lot of money,” he said.

What are Drug Courts?

Drug courts are judicially supervised court proceedings that deal strictly with drug or addiction-related offenses like possession. Drug courts are meant to help rehabilitate criminals and lead them away from addiction rather than simple conviction and arrest. Drug court advocates believe the specialty dockets make a real difference in helping offenders instead of allowing them to become another number in the criminal justice system. In Ohio, a judge must apply to state authorities to run a specialty docket.

Drug Courts vs. Traditional Court

Drug courts have been around for several years but have become more popular during the opioid crisis. Let’s learn the differences between drug and traditional courts to learn how the unique courts operate.

Drug Court Addiction Recovery


Traditional court witnesses a wide variety of crime including violent crime. Drug courts only take up cases that are directly related to addiction or substance abuse disorders. Someone caught with a small baggie of cocaine can be sent to drug court for underlying addiction and substance abuse issues related to their crime instead of shuffling through the traditional court system. Violence-related drug offenses do not usually qualify for specialty dockets.

Fines and Penalties

In a traditional court system, criminals who are found guilty face fines, jailtime, and other punishment. In drug court penalties are much milder on the pretext that the offender will successfully complete the program and move away from the criminal justice system. If a participant fails to meet the guidelines, they are booted back to the traditional courts to face fines or jailtime. Drug courts may bring fines or other fees to help cover the cost of programs, but they are much lower than normal penalties and fines.


Traditional courts have monitoring like parole systems, but monitoring is stepped up for drug courts. Enrollees must regularly meet with drug referral officers, take random drug tests, and participate in treatment programs including 12-step meetings. If the enrollee completes the program successfully charges are typically reduced, especially in felony possession cases. Drug court proponents believe the monitoring and accountability help make more successful cases – and the evidence is on their side.

Recidivism Rates and Saving Ohioans Money  

Do drug courts work? Early data from Ohio suggests that drug courts are more beneficial against recidivism and relapse than traditional court systems. Of the 22 women who have participated and completed Warren County’s drug court program since its 2016 inception, only 2 have committed additional crimes. That’s not the only quantified success. According to the Dayton Daily News 75% of women who have completed the Montgomery County Specialty Docket program had no new crimes on their records. 11% were found to have committed new felonies and another 11% committed new misdemeanors – a 14% drop compared to the county’s average 3-year recidivism rate of 36%.

It’s also estimated drug courts can save the state significant money. A recent study by the University of Virginia estimates can save taxpayers $20,000 per successful completion compared to the traditional court system. Additionally, in 2005 the University of Cincinnati found every dollar spent on specialty docket programs saves five compared to traditional courts.

“There are some judges who have the perspective that … they just might not need a drug court,” said Judge Judy Wiseman of Montgomery County. “There are also judges who adhere to a punishment-based model of criminal justice… We have opted for something different because we think in the long run, it’s more cost-effective at getting people disengaged from the criminal justice system.”

Governor DeWine and the current specialty docket programs believe more drug courts can help stem the flurry of burdened courts, crimes, and overdose. Early numbers agree with them. The governor’s budget will be reviewed by Ohio’s legislative bodies to help decide the new state budget and how much the governor gets for his new courts.

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