By JOY BROWN
Rather than ordering drunken drivers to sit in jail, Findlay’s municipal judges want to sentence them to a place that treats them.
“Everyone is in agreement that we should start on the OVI offenders and then expand to others. That’s a strong population that we can address,” Municipal Judge Robert Fry said.
“It will give us the numbers we need and reduce pressure on the jail. Getting treatment for people will also reduce the economic impact to the city and county.”
People sentenced for drunken driving, mainly men, account for a high percentage of those serving sentences at the crowded Hancock County jail, officials say.
Findlay judges were encouraged to pursue the treatment option during a visit in February to the Clermont County Alternative Sentencing Center in Batavia, which has the first and only program of its kind in Ohio.
The Clermont County center, just east of Cincinnati, was created under a 2011 state law. The center is used for qualifying females convicted of nonviolent, misdemeanor drug and alcohol offenses.
Instead of continuing to expand its jail, Clermont County decided to tackle the root of its prisoners’ addiction problems and to offer solutions. The goal is to improve lives and decrease the number of people who cycle in and out of jail.
The center, which opened in August, is overseen by Talbert House, a nonprofit that provides substance abuse and mental health services, and works with Batavia Municipal Court and the county’s Probation Department.
The new law allows judges to order offenders to serve time in the center instead of in jail.
Most women there are heroin addicts, said Thomas Eigel, Clermont County’s assistant administrator. They receive individual treatment plans, guidance, and follow-up attention to sustain their sobriety after they are discharged.
It is preferred that residents pay for their stay, and Talbert House works with them to do so if they are employed.
A work-release program is also available at the center, but, unlike traditional work-release programs, residents aren’t required to pay.
Clermont County officials contend that housing someone at the center is cheaper than at the county’s jail.
The cost factor, along with potentially far-reaching social benefits, are attractive to Findlay officials, particularly since Hancock County this year increased the daily fee from $55 to $84 for housing a prisoner at the county jail.
The new rate is expected to cost Findlay an additional $350,000 per year.
Lack of space at the Hancock County jail has also been a problem for years, Findlay Municipal Court judges say. Some misdemeanor offenders are turned away multiple times when they report to the jail to serve their sentences.
The city’s work-release program, the Work Opportunity & Rehabilitation Center on Crawford Street, with its mandatory $25-per-day fee, hasn’t filled as many beds as the judges hoped it would after it opened in 2009, and it doesn’t provide drug treatment.
The county jail provides some treatment options, but cannot force prisoners to take advantage of them.
Fry said if the community opened its own alternative sentencing center, officials have agreed it would initially only accept men who have been convicted of driving while intoxicated.
For the past five years, the average number of drunken driving cases has been 631, reported Findlay Municipal Court Administrator Dave Beach.
Last year, 231 did jail time, which included 182 men and 49 women.
“The jail is filled about 50-50 with OVI offenders versus others serving in jail. About half of the people incarcerated are for alcohol,” Fry said. The rest are serving time for other criminal offenses, many related to drug addiction.
Alcohol abuse itself appears to be a growing regional problem. According to a Hancock County quality-of-life survey conducted by various service organizations in 2013, adult binge drinking rose from 15 percent in 2011 to 23 percent last year.
Hancock County tallied higher than the average state and national levels, which were calculated at 18 percent and 17 percent, respectively.
Precia Stuby, Hancock County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services executive director, said the board supports sentencing options that provide drug and alcohol treatment instead of incarceration.
“We’re leaving it up to the judges to evaluate how it (center) fits into our local community and justice system. But if they decide to create one, we want to be a partner with them right from the outset,” Stuby said.
The Hancock County commissioners have the authority to create a sentencing center, but Fry said the commissioners have indicated they’d be willing to let the city run it.
Fry said court officials would like to incorporate an alternative sentencing center into the existing work-release program.
“We want it to be one and the same. The state does allow us to use that facility,” he said.
How much that would cost the city has yet to be determined. Fry said grant options to help pay for services are being researched.
“I would love to see it in operation before the end of the year,” Fry said. “We have a lot of work to do, but there are not any roadblocks at this time.”
He said officials are closely watching a proposed law that would allow for offenders to remain in such a program for up to 90 days instead of the current 30-day limit.
Clermont County, the only one to take advantage of what Fry referred to as an “obscure” state statute, has had mixed results.
Its center can house up to 50, but “the beds are not typically full,” Eigel said.
“We are averaging approximately 16 clients per day,” Eigel said. “Enrollment is not what we expected. We are in the process of taking steps to identify barriers to enrollment.”
One of the barriers is thought to be the 30-day maximum for lengths of stay, he said.
Not enough time has passed to measure recidivism rates, Eigel said.
But Findlay and Hancock County are not looking to precisely mimic what Clermont County is doing, Fry said. Instead, officials have sought basic operational and logistical information to help them avoid pitfalls.
“Everybody is committed to making this happen. I think we can get it done,” Fry said.
Clermont County Alternative Sentencing Center:
Ohio Revised Code:
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