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The Opioid Epidemic Has Made Some Courts Into A New Kind Of Clinic

Dennis Michelson at Lake County drug court in Mentor. [Matt Richmond / ideastream]

Judges from Lake County to Geauga to Ashtabula send defendants from their courtrooms to Dennis Michelson for a pre-sentencing evaluation. It’s his job to determine whether they’re a good candidate for drug treatment. And, to answer that question, Michelson starts with one of his own.

“Let’s say you come in to see me,” said Michelson, during an interview at his office in Chardon. “You’re expecting me to hammer you – how could you rob your mother, this that and the other. No, it’s going, ‘Well, what do you want to do in life?’” 

Their ability to answer that question, he says, tells him whether they have a shot at recovery.

As the opioid epidemic has spread throughout Northeast Ohio, the criminal justice system has searched for alternatives to punishing offenders.

New drug courts give people caught up in the epidemic a chance at treatment. Michelson started working with the drug court in Mentor before it was launched in 2010.

During a recent court session, he stands next to a defendant who’s appearing for the first time in front of Mentor Judge John Trebets.

In this Lake County courtroom are about a dozen drug court participants – admitted after a misdemeanor charge. Each went to Michelson for an assessment before joining the 18 – to – 24 month treatment program.

They’re almost all young, they look to be in their 20s.

To get through the drug court program, they have to agree to counseling, drug tests and close monitoring of their lives – from who they’re living with to how they spend their free time.

Judge Trebets is open about using a parenting style in his courtroom. He encourages and scolds and jokes and seems to genuinely care about the people who come before him.

According to Michelson, that parental style is a response to one of the unique features of this drug epidemic – how young people are when they’re ready to get over their opioid addiction.

“When I first started this, we used to do a lot of rehabilitation and rehabilitation was taking someone back to their roots, to the life they had. Today, especially with the younger crowd, we habilitate,” said Michelson.

Michelson worked in the Geauga county jail as an addiction treatment counselor for years. He saw the drug of choice change from mostly alcohol to pills and then heroin.

Back when that change started, no one believed there was much to it.

“They basically said, ‘oh, it’s like cocaine and we’ll get through it, it’s not as bad as you think it is,’” said Michelson. “And, of course, for once in my life I’m sorry I was right.”

The turning point, in a place like Lake County, was when the epidemic started hitting close to home.

“The star football quarterback of Mentor High School overdoses and dies,” said Michelson. “That’s when people start to you know, ‘we’ve got to do something.’” 

That was in 2011.

The response to the epidemic has changed since then. Michelson said there’s more money available, a better understanding of what kind of treatment works best for opiate addictions, and more being done to get people into treatment.

Judges hire him to answer one central question: “Is this a bad person doing bad things or a good person doing bad things because of drugs, or family issues or mental health struggles?”

He tries to weed out the bad ones. The rest he says can be reached with treatment.

And that’s why drug courts like the one in Mentor were created.

“None of these judges are soft on crime,” said Michelson. “They used to see addiction as a pure behavioral thing. Just stop it. Just quit.”

But that view on addiction has evolved. That’s partly due to how hard it is to kick heroin and how widespread the epidemic is in Ohio.

Still, Michelson said, addiction – regardless of increased efforts at treatment – will continue to rear its head.

“I think it’s like whack-a-mole,” said Michelson. “Heroin pops up its head. Something else pops up its head.”

The trick, according to Michelson, is redirecting that addiction toward something legal and non-lethal.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.