County drug court program sees success

LISBON — A group has been gathering for months in the courtroom of Columbiana County Municipal Court Judge Chris Amato, in many cases not to learn about punishment for a crime, but to celebrate milestones achieved.

The County Municipal Drug Court meets weekly, providing those selected to participate with a chance to work on their addictions instead of just continuing the cycle of fines, jail and committing the same or worse crimes in the future.

One at a time they stand in front of Amato, who asks them questions about how things are going. Not all of the questions are about their drug use, Amato says. In many cases drug court administrators want to get to know these people, what things are important in their lives and to remind them that those important things are the reasons they are participating in the court.

One woman comes quickly up when her name is called, smiling big, and reports she is feeling great. She has been working out with her children in the living room, passing her drug tests and going to counseling. She is one of the people receiving Vivitol shots, which can help in both opioid and alcohol addiction, according to Juli Tice, a probation officer working with the drug court.

“I’m happy you guys are holding me accountable,” says one woman, who has three little girls. She is determined she does not want them to see her go to jail again.

Another young woman proudly says she is working toward getting her license so her grandmother does not have to drive her around anymore. Others are working through their drug addiction and the family court as well, trying to regain custody of their children.

Most of the people in the program are now regularly passing their drug screens. Some are working toward goals like their GED or high school diploma. Those involved in helping with the program have contacts to help them work toward their goals.

Many have now found jobs, and Amato said when he sees them working hard he has actually called a prospective employer to recommend they give this recovering person a chance.

Amato notes in many cases their appearances are improving. They no longer look like someone strung out. They have pride in their successes, and it is showing in the ways they are caring for themselves and dressing for their court appearances.

“If they beat the illness, they aren’t going back to jail,” Amato said. “We’ll keep trying different things until we get them off drugs.

Counselors from Columbiana County Mental Health and Family Recovery, as well as probation department employees also provide a report to the judge. In most cases they are getting a chance to give Amato a good report and with the good reports come the praise. When the person is concerned about a relapse, Amato encourages them to call someone in the program, the help hotline or with their local police department for help.

While the drug court has been seeing many successes, sometimes someone stumbles. Before getting into the program, the person must plead to the charges that brought them into the Columbiana County Municipal Court, and Amato sentences them to the maximum sentence. Depending on the charges, the person could be facing significant jail time. Then the sentence is put on hold while the person begins the program.

For the next two years, they are expected to work hard toward their own recovery, with the aid of all those involved with the drug court. It includes attending weekly meetings in Amato’s courtroom, counseling appointments and many drug screens. It comes with a group working to hold them accountable.

Amato notes they have lost two people of the original 13 involved in the program. The remaining 11 continue to work hard. Seven or eight have passed every drug test, Amato notes.

When someone repeatedly does not succeed, the jail sentence is there. They can do the maximum time for the offenses they are charged with. For one woman brought into the courtroom this week in handcuffs, that could be three years. The woman, who said she knew she was going to relapse, will serve 20 days in jail for now and be given another chance to work on her addiction problems.

After the drug court ended for the day, Amato said he does not see any of them as “disposable people.” Instead they are people he would like to see recover and become productive members of society.

Amato is stepping down from his post as Columbiana County Municipal Court judge, but he says this program will continue. He is proud when he considers the relationships and success stories happening through the drug court.

“To me this is the best part of the job,” Amato said. “I’m looking back and saying this is the thing I’m most proud of.”