Addicts, families take sides on treating addiction through the court system

COLUMBUS (WCMH) – From recovering addicts and their parents to people in the legal field, many agree that prison time does not fix the problem of addiction.

Tracy Morrison said her family has experienced that firsthand. Her daughters Jenna, 25, and Kaylee, 30, have been using heroin since 2008.

“You’re in a horrible situation,” Morrison said. “Your kid’s stealing from you and you didn’t raise them this way.”

In 2008, a police officer advised her to file criminal charges against her daughters to get them into the court system and into treatment. Morrison said she naively thought her daughters would face petty theft charges, but the strategy backfired.

“One was charged with five felonies, one was charged with three,” Morrison said. “It set off a cycle of the criminal justice system that we haven’t been able to get out of since. It bankrupted me.”

Eight years later, asked what she would do differently, Morrison said it depends on the county in which people live, noting that some counties have drug court programs that allow addicts to get treatment rather than face prison time.

Judge Scott VanDerKarr helped create a specialty docket drug court during his time in Franklin County Municipal Court. He retired in January 2016 to join Brad Koffel, an attorney at Koffel Law Firm, working with parents of adult addicts to file misdemeanor and low-level felony charges against their children.

“You can’t send people to prison and expect an outcome with a disease,” VanDerKarr said. “You wouldn’t do that with breast cancer. But on the other hand, you have to hold the addict accountable.”

In VanDerKarr’s drug court, offenders with addiction problems would spend two years in the program. For most of the first year, VanDerKarr said, they would see the judge weekly and attend meetings and counseling to “break the cycle of addiction.” In the second year, offenders would see the judge at least every other week.

VanDerKarr said he wants to start drug courts all over Ohio.

“If I can go out and start 50 courts, I can affect thousands of lives,” VanDerKarr said.

His partner, Brad Koffel, explained the process of working with parents of adult addicts, describing the story of one young man who continued to use heroin after an overdose.

“He was right back to walking around, he was ambulatory, he was back to using within days,” Koffel said. “Prior to that, his girlfriend had died of an accidental overdose from heroin, and Mom and Dad were very concerned that the next phone call they’d make on his behalf would be to the paramedics or potentially to a funeral home.”

Parents of adult addicts can file charges against their children for a crime such as stealing. Koffel said that “in a perfect world,” the addict would then go to jail for a brief period of time to detox before receiving Vivitrol, a monthly shot that both blocks the effects of opiates and also dulls the cravings for the drug.

“It’s counter intuitive to call the police on your son or daughter,” Koffel said. “It’s not counter intuitive to call the paramedics when they’re overdosing or when they’re dying.”

Charlie Stewart, 24, struggled with addiction and behavioral problems from high school until his early 20s.

“I stole, cheated, manipulated, hurt the people who were closest to me,” Stewart said. “I burned a lot of bridges.”

Misdemeanor charges landed Stewart in Drug Court. He’s now been in recovery for three years and helps mentor others who are dealing with addiction or other problems.

“We can stop it before it gets to that point, or if they’re at that point, we can make it better from there,” Stewart said.

While Stewart’s experience in recovery has been positive, life after jail has been tougher for Tracy Morrison’s daughters.

Morrison said her daughter Jenna had been clean for more than three years when she relapsed with cocaine in January. She has been incarcerated ever since and was set to be released on Monday. Morrison said Jenna would be going to treatment in Piketon for the next few months.

She said both of her daughters have faced difficulty in finding jobs and housing with their felony records.

“I didn’t know that I was going to make them unemployable,” Morrison said. “I didn’t know that I was going to make it so they could never live in low-income housing. Because they’re poor, you would think, well, go live in low-income housing. Well, if you have drug charges, you can’t. It’s against the law.”

She said parents have to make their own decisions about whether to file charges against their children.

“The zip code you live in has a lot to do with the outcome you’re going to have,” Morrison said. “If it’s a county that believes in treatment, that this is an illness, that they need to get wraparound services and help, then the criminal justice system can be the hammer that you need as a parent to stop them, cause you can’t stop them.”

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