Sunday, October 01, 2000

Lawyers protest drug court assigning

They contend some users prefer jail to treatment

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati defense attorneys say hundreds of drug cases are improperly assigned every year to Hamilton County's drug court.

        In legal briefs and letters to judges, the attorneys claim the drug court is taking cases that should be randomly assigned to all 16 judges in Common Pleas Court.

        If they're right, the drug court may not be able to get enough cases to stay in business.

        The dispute began in August when the Greater Cincinnati Criminal Defense Lawyers Association complained about the way cases are assigned to drug court.

        Drug court was created five years ago to funnel non-violent drug offenders into treatment programs instead of jail. Judge Deidre Hair runs the court.

        But the defense lawyers suggest many of those offenders would rather take their chances with other Common Pleas judges. Although those judges might send the offenders to jail, the sentence often takes less time than a treatment program.

        One of the defense lawyers, William Gallagher, said state law allows drug court to take only those offenders who “demonstrate a sincere willingness to participate” in the treatment programs.

        He said offenders who do not want to participate should be randomly assigned to another judge.

        “They're bypassing random assignment,” Mr. Gallagher said.

        He has raised his concerns in a legal brief that asks Judge Hair to allow one of his clients to get another judge. Because she has not yet ruled on the issue, Judge Hair declined to discuss it.

        But in a recent letter to the Ohio Supreme Court, she acknowledged there is “some confusion” over the drug court's ability to take all minor drug cases, those essentially involving possession and drug use, not trafficking. In the letter, she asks the court to grant a waiver of the random assignment rule so the drug court could continue to take the drug cases. But the Supreme Court will not get involved because Mr. Gallagher's request is pending before Judge Hair.

        Mr. Gallagher could appeal if Judge Hair rules against him, and the outcome could affect the hun dreds of cases that are assigned to drug court every year.

        If a higher court orders random assignment of the cases, it will be far more difficult for Judge Hair to keep cases in her court and addicts in treatment programs.

        Critics have said the court is unnecessary, but Judge Hair said it is effective. A recent study by the U.S. Justice Department supports her claim. Since 1996, the study found, 92 percent of the 574 offenders who passed through the court have stayed out of trouble.

        “I don't know that this can get much better,” Judge Hair said. “Drug court works.”


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