Before this year, Indiana courts had limited discretion over where inmates sentenced for Level 6 felonies would serve their time. Now, according to a law that took effect in July, judges have more leeway in sending inmates to the state’s Department of Correction, which gives them access to resources that can assist them deliver additional mental health and addiction treatment programs to inmates.
That ordinance, in tandem with the county’s existing problem-solving courts, has had a significant influence on reducing addiction in Johnson County.
“No question about it, it’s making a huge difference in these people’s lives,”
said Johnson Superior Court Judge Peter Nugent.
On this Wednesday at three in the afternoon, the Johnson County Courthouse is hosting a special problem-solving workshop. There is a lot of work involved in this program, and it takes a full two years to complete. When it comes to getting and staying sober, Nugent says that a program like a problem-solving court is crucial for people who have finished the Recovery While Incarcerated program inside the DOC.
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“The structure of this program is key. If most of these folks would have come out of the Department of Correction and been placed on probation immediately, they wouldn’t have made it,”
Many people are looking forward to this court date.
Johnson County Magistrate Judge Brandi Foster Kirkendall once described it as
“It’s the highlight of my week,”
Foster Kirkendall, the judges, the prosecutors, and the 30 people that attend the problem-solving court with him every week. They probe for details on work, sobriety, and family life, all with an eye towards holding locals to account and providing aid where it’s needed.
“You’re helping them with the other areas of their life and directing them in ways they’ve probably never had direction, support and accountability before,”
Foster Kirkendall said.
“So I think you’re able to see more of a change and a difference in them, in their life, and not just one of their criminal cases.“
“I honestly couldn’t say where I’d be right now if I didn’t have this program,”
said Bill Sparks, a graduate of the problem-solving court.
Sparks and Greg Bailey are finishing the program after two years of meetings, checks, and court hearings. It’s a huge success that required a lot of work and dedication to reach.
“You’ve got the judge, you’ve got the prosecutors, they’re not there to hit you over the head. They’re there to help you in any way they can,”
The use of special courts to address local issues, like the ones established in Johnson County, is unusual in the rest of the state of Indiana. However, recent state law is expanding the availability of court-mandated addiction and mental health treatment options for those in Indiana who are facing Level 6 felony charges.
According to Nugent, DOC has more to offer in terms of resources than the commercial treatment services they refer patients to.
“And most of the folks that we get who have meth charges, heroin charges, that are Level 6 felonies, they need inpatient treatment. And fortunately, the law now allows us to do that,”
“And fortunately, the law now allows us to do that so we can send some of those who need it to the Department of Corrections whereas before we couldn’t.”
It has been seven months since the law went into force, and now, according to Nugent, he is using it to divert people in need of mental health treatment or addiction therapies from the county jail to the Department of Corrections.
“We’ve been able to utilize it to send some people to the Department of Corrections on Level 6 felony offenses, they need it. They need the inpatient treatment that I think at this point, only the Department of Corrections has been able to provide,”
“This is a treatment sentence. This isn’t a punishment sentence.”
Nugent said they are seeing the positive effects of expanding access to treatment for those struggling with addiction firsthand in their courtrooms. The problem-solving court in Johnson County, Kansas, saw its first three graduates on Wednesday.
They have worked hard to get to this point, and they deserve to celebrate their accomplishment in the presence of friends, family, and fellow program participants who are all there to cheer them on in their sobriety and lend a hand as they begin their new lives.
“We need programs like this one. We need it in every county,”
Misty Hogan, a 2021 problem-solving court alum, said.
“Putting someone in prison isn’t always the best option. Every person’s recovery is going to be different. And although my prison sentence changed my life, this program, I can’t even put into words, it’s one of my greatest accomplishments.”