Saturday, October 21, 2000

Judges ask drug court expansion




By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Hamilton County's drug court would more than double in size under a proposal judges will take to the Ohio Supreme Court next week.

        The proposal seeks permission to assign every drug-related felony case to the drug court, not just the minor drug abuse cases it now handles.

        The judges' plan also calls for a second drug court judge to handle the additional cases.

        If the Supreme Court approves the judges' proposal, it would dramatically expand the drug court's original mission of funneling non-violent offenders into treatment programs.

        Instead of dealing solely with abusers, the expanded court would handle drug trafficking and other serious drug-related cases.

        “The idea is to turn over all of the drug cases,” said Judge Robert Kraft, the presiding judge in Common Pleas Court. “There is the potential for good results.”

        Not everyone thinks the proposal is a good idea. Al though 10 of the 16 common pleas judges have signed the proposal, some judges have reservations.

        “Until (drug court) is proven to be absolutely necessary, I won't sign off on it,” said Judge Norbert Nadel. “I think without further study, one drug court is enough.”

        The cost of expanding the court has not been determined, but Judge Nadel and a few others say there is no justification right now for any additional expense.

        Judge Deidre Hair presides over the drug court and supports the court's expansion. Judge Hair is expected to retire at the end of this year and wants to ensure the court will continue.

        She has cited a recent U.S. Justice Department study as proof drug court works. Since 1996, the study found, 92 percent of the 574 offenders who passed through the court have stayed out of trouble.

        But the court's effectiveness will not be the only issue when the Supreme Court considers the judges' expansion plan.

        The most controversial question is whether the drug court should be allowed to take every drug-related case. Under the Supreme Court's rules, all criminal cases are supposed to be randomly assigned to judges.

        The Supreme Court must agree to waive that rule before drug court can begin taking all of the drug cases.

        Some defense attorneys already oppose the way drug court takes low-level drug cases. In a recent letter to Judge Hair, the attorneys complained that their clients would rather skip drug court and take their chances with other, randomly assigned judges.

        Despite the opposition, Hamilton County's plan to expand the drug court is expected to reach the Supreme Court next week.

        If the court approves, a new judge could be appointed to drug court before the end of the year. Common Pleas Judge David Davis is the most likely to move into the new position.

        Judge Kraft said he hopes an expanded drug court will lighten the caseloads of other common pleas judges and will help steer more offenders into treatment programs.

        “Everybody's looking for ways to keep people out of jail,” Judge Kraft said. “We want to deal with the drug problem in a positive way.”

       



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