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New program reaches out to people struggling with both substance abuse and mental health issues


Belmont County Common Pleas Judge John Vavra sees it all too often—defendants battling not only substance abuse but mental health issues too. Officials call it a “co-occurring diagnosis.”

Judge Vavra says medical experts say drugs affect the way the brain works, making it extremely difficult for people to end their drug habit.

At the same time, it’s becoming clear that incarcerating 4th and 5th-degree felons does little good toward their outcome.

“To have these non-violent drug possession defendants in prison does no good, and profits no one,” 

 Judge Vavra

Vavra said it costs taxpayers about $50,000 a year to keep a person in prison, and they get virtually no counseling or rehabilitation while they are in.“They get out, and there’s little to no change,” he noted.

That’s why Judge Vavra says Mental Health and Recovery Court could help

It would operate like Drug Court, but will address both the mental health and the substance abuse issues at the same time.

He says the defendant would enter a guilty plea, which would be set aside while the defendant works on their issues with professionals from Southeast Mental Health. So instead of going to prison, they attend counseling sessions, receive medication, submit to random drug testing and check in regularly with the probation office and the court.

There would also be a community service and employment component, and transportation would be provided. The process could take one to three years to complete, and there would be a six-month aftercare period also

It actually got started in Belmont County one month ago, and two participants have been accepted, with two more coming in.It is all done at no cost to the taxpayer.The defendant pays $50 a month to participate.

It is a medicine-assisted treatment, and the medicine —Vivitrol—is given by injection.“It’s not something that could be traded or sold on the street,” the judge explained.He said Mental Health and Recovery Court would only be for non-violent and less serious offenders.

He says it would be a one-time opportunity.

Anyone who fails will be “back to square one,” facing incarceration for the offense they pleaded guilty to. And they would never be accepted into the program again

He said the prosecutor’s office, the person’s defense attorney and the probation office would all work together, following the person’s progress.He said it could produce a much better outcome than just locking people away. 

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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