When one enters Judge Becky Doherty’s courtroom, the first word they see is 'hope.'
It rests on her desk at Portage County's Court of Common Pleas, painted on a purple rock and spelled out on a wooden sign.
With these decorations, Doherty makes it easy to see 'hope' in her courtroom. She acknowledges, though, the difficulty of finding this in the midst of the opioid epidemic.
“With the epidemic as it is, judges are truly at a loss as to what to do," Doherty said.
Doherty said she and other Portage County judges see heroin and other opioid overdose victims every week.
“I kind of have to hold my breath every Monday morning to see who (has) overdosed over the weekend.”
Judge Kevin Poland of Portage County's Municipal Court agreed.
“It is a tragic development that has occurred, and it’s been building for years,” Poland said. “We need to try to combat it.”
When someone is arraigned in court for using opioids, the judges said limited places exist to send the defendant. Portage County is home to several privately owned addiction treatment centers, like Townhall II — specifically Horizon House for women and Root House for men.
Unfortunately, the judges said these existing places are not equipped to treat felony offenders, citing the lack of beds and low security as issues.
With no space in detox centers, the only option for defendants is jail. Portage County Sheriff David Doak said while the inmates are monitored and offered assistance during the drug detoxification process, jail is not the ideal place for this to occur.
“It’s pretty sad to watch them detox in jail,” Doak said. “This is not a mental health facility, it’s not a hospital — it’s a jail.”
A possible solution might be found on the east side of Ravenna, the county seat of Portage County.
Altercare, a former nursing home that closed about one decade ago, has been owned by Neighborhood Development Services, a nonprofit organization also located in Ravenna, has owned the building since 2015.
NDS, alongside fellow nonprofit Family and Community Services, proposed transforming the currently vacant building into a residential opiate treatment center to the Portage County Commissioners earlier this month.
According to the proposal, obtained through a public records request, NDS asked the commissioners for funds to run the facility, and plans to take out a loan to repair the property.
NDS would utilize four wings of the facility to house patients with fifty beds being used: 40 for rehabilitation and 10 for detoxification. Patients would be secure and monitored at all times, according to the proposal.
Doherty, alongside Poland, Doak and Judge Barbara Oswick of Portage County's Municipal Court in Ravenna, have all voiced their support for the plan.
“A facility like that, where there’s longer-term oversight, I believe would help folks get well, get off drugs, maybe even get totally away from them, and they could become a productive citizen again,” Doak said.
Not everyone is in favor of the proposed location for the treatment center, however.
Ravenna resident James Smith, who lives across the street from the property, collected a petition from neighbors and area residents asking the commissioners and judges not to consider the proposal for safety reasons.
“They’re (going to) come across the street and steal from us to get a fix, or possibly break in our homes and do bodily harm to us,” Smith said.
The county commissioners also expressed concerns about the proposal. Portage County Commissioner Vicki Kline said she worries there is not enough taxpayer and fellow commissioner support to fund the center.
Board member Maureen Frederick wrote via email while the proposal was “worthy” and “aimed at combating a prolific problem,” she still had concerns and unanswered questions.
The proposal asks the commissioners to approve $300,000 per year for 10 years to be paid by taxpayers at a rate of $25,000 per month. That equates to $3 million after that time period.
Kline said no new taxes would be collected to fund the center; instead, the commissioners would redistribute money from taxes already being paid for other projects, such as the Portage County Jail expansion, to this cause. She also said she is looking for citizens in and around the community to donate to help fund the center.
Both the sheriff and judges said they believe the project will pay off long-term for all. Doak said paying for a facility to combat repeating felony offenders would cost less than the money taxpayers already spend on the police force, courts, prosecutors, public defenders, jails and prisons.
“If I spent a little bit more in tax money occasionally to put a stop to this (problem) and begin to reverse it at some point, that would be a win for me as a taxpayer down the road,” Doak said.
Doherty agreed. “To me, it’s an investment in people, and it’s so necessary,” she said.
Even if this particular proposal is not approved, the commissioners, the judges, the sheriff and residents all seem to agree that Portage County needs its own rehabilitation facility to treat court-ordered felony offenders.
For Doak, this means a safer way of helping defendants detox than when they are behind bars.
“Unfortunately, ... it seems to get worse or escalates in a jail cell,” Doak said. “I think it would be a lot more humane way to deal with them if we had something like this.”
Kline hopes to spread information and outreach about the epidemic to the Portage County community while she waits to take a vote with her fellow commissioners.
“(The vote) will not be brought forth till there is more support,” Kline said.
Smith said he and his neighbors support having a treatment center for felony offenders in the county, but wish for a different location.
"We have no problem with people being rehabilitated,” he said. “We just want them to be put somewhere where they don’t interfere with the neighborhood."
Doherty said she believes going forth with the proposal would be a step in curbing Portage County’s opiate problem.
“Sometimes the only thing to do is to keep them incarcerated. ... a long enough time so they can truly get that drug out of their brain, rewire so that their every thought isn’t just to get that drug,” Doherty added. “This facility would add an extra layer to that. Rather than incarceration in the jail or in prison, we could try this.”
Poland said it does not matter to him the final location of the residential treatment center; he simply stressed the importance of having one in the county.
“We do need (an) in patient, residential treatment facility to give these people a fighting chance," Poland said.
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