Sheriff: 'What we’re doing is not working'

Cary Ashby • Apr 29, 2016 at 10:00 AM

Judge Jim Conway doesn’t see the local Vivitrol program as a cure for opiate addiction, but a step in the right direction and useful tool for breaking the addiction cycle. 

“It’s certainly not a cure-all,” he said Wednesday at the Huron County Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t think it’s a cure.

“Addicts are going to be addicts are going to be addicts,” Conway added.

The judge said being on the Vivitrol program should at least give tools to drug addicts to recognize their symptoms and lead them away from a drug-induced lifestyle. People undergoing Vivitrol treatment are administered a shot every 28 days.

“It’s an opiate blocker. It prevents a high,” Conway said. “It makes you highly sick if you use (drugs). It is effective for some people.”

Elected Huron County Common Pleas Court judge in 2006, Conway shared information about the grant-based court program and substance abuse treatment Wednesday. He spoke before the meeting of the northeast district of the Buckeye State Sheriff’s Association and representatives from the offices of Gov. John Kasich, the attorney general and state auditor.

Common pleas and Norwalk Municipal courts have been awarded a two-year grant to provide substance abuse counseling specifically targeting heroin and opiate abuse. The local program started in February, employs three full-time counselors and is housed in the Huron County Office Building beside the courthouse.

Conway said he can’t order a defendant to undergo Vivitrol treatment, but if the person volunteers to do so, he said he expects the person to complete the full program. If defendants don’t, authorities may file a probation violation.

“It is very expensive to do. We don’t want to spend good money after bad,” the judge said. 

Known as NOBARS, the $1.7 million regional grant program “helps provide services to courts to deal with the increasing demand on their probation departments as the state tries to reduce its over-populated prison system,” according to a press release about the program.

“In an addition to traditional counseling sessions, the grant makes it possible for the courts to implement medically-assisted treatment programs using the opiate-blocking medication Vivitrol,” Conway said. 

One of the challenges of the program, Conway said, is judges are releasing drug addicts into the community. He said NOBARS is best for people who are genuinely interested in getting help for their sobriety.

“We have the capacity to do 120 (participants). We have 35 in there now,” Conway said. “We think it will fill up.”

Many police chiefs have asked Huron County Sheriff Dane Howard why he’s on board with the Vivitrol program. He said the area is seeing “a huge rise” in heroin- and opiate-related crimes and if it’s successful, it could take care of as much as 120 defendants at a time.

“What we’re doing is not working,” Howard said, citing a 98-percent rate of opiate users committing more crimes. “I think it’s time for us to think outside of the box.”

In 2011, House Bill 86 took the discretion away from judges sentencing defendants convicted of fourth- and fifth-degree felonies to prison. Now, defendants face jail time as a condition of their probation.

“We kind of had to adjust to what we did,” said Conway, who believes a long-term, in-house treatment program is the best option for handling heroin addiction.

In addition to the NOBARS program and Vivitrol treatment, judges have the option of placing defendants on a treatment-in-lieu-of-conviction program. That means if they successfully complete a certified treatment program and don’t violate their probation, judges won’t impose a conviction.

“It’s a good tool. We make good use of it in our court,” Conway said.

Local defendants undergoing Vivitrol treatments would be in the program for a year to 18 months. The person has to be “detoxed” for seven to 10 days before starting. Conway said the area might not see the effective impact of the program until four or five years.

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