Court program makes women earn their second chance

The women lining the benches of Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge Mary Wiseman’s courtroom all had drug offenses and were hoping for a second chance.

On this day most showed they were sticking to a program for recovery, but some of the others got an escort to jail.

They had failed drug tests, been caught with drugs, skipped rehab or otherwise failed to live up to the rules of Wiseman’s Women’s Therapeutic Court, a specialty docket for women who’ve pleaded guilty or been convicted of drug-related offenses.

“I’m going to take you into custody right now because you are in active addiction,” Wiseman told one woman. “I want to keep you alive.”

>>RELATED: Pregnant inmates have local jails scrambling to provide care

Another woman offered up excuses for why she was missing appointments and still smoking marijuana, telling Wiseman her life is stressful and smoking the occasional joint is no big deal.

Wiseman didn’t buy her story.

“If you think it’s hard to obey authority and keep appointments now, wait until you wake up in (prison) in Marysville,” she said. “If you get a felony you can talk to these (other) women about how hard it is to get a good job.”

To the ones who were doing well, Wiseman handed out praise and advice.

“Keep up the good work. You are doing great,” she told a 23-year-old pregnant woman who was successfully staying drug free.

>>RELATED: Women living with babies inside Ohio prison

The specialty docket, which the county began in 2014, provides an extra layer of support and treatment for drug addicted women who the court believes are amenable to help.

“If we can intercede and intervene on their substance abuse, then we can stop their ongoing process of criminal behavior,” Wiseman said. “What you see when you go to drug court is a massive cognitive behavioral program. It has rewards for positive behavior and consequences for bad behavior.”

Montomery County Common Pleas Court - criminal cases initiated - by gender 2012-2016

2012 776 3,288 35 4,099
2013 861 3,375 28 4,264
2014 994 3,631 45 4,670
2015 1,019 3,303 44 4,366
2016 1,027 3,345 47 4,419

Source: Montgomery County Clerk of Courts

About 140 to 180 women are involved at any one time. The county has a separate drug court for men.

Women on Wiseman’s docket are required to go to therapy and rehab, submit to regular, random drug tests and are supervised by the probation department and caseworkers. Wiseman reviews their progress before each weekly session.

 >>RELATED: 5 things local leaders are doing to battle heroin and opioid addiction

Those who complete treatment, test negative for drugs for at least six months, have a job or a pending Social Security disability application, and have paid their fines get to graduate from the program. Some are rewarded with expungement of their felony convictions, while others get to stay out of jail and be freed of supervision by the criminal justice system.

“We believe that our recidivism rate is better than the general (court) population and our ability to keep people clean and sober is better than the general population,” Wiseman said. “I am 100 percent convinced this is where the rubber meets the road and we are changing lives and getting people out of addiction and into sustained recovery.”

>>RELATED: Mom feels blessed to have her child with her in prison

>>RELATED: More potent drugs raise stakes in Ohio’s fight against opioids

>>RELATED: Opioid crisis persists despite funding burst

ABOUT THIS PROJECT: See our story about the impact of rising numbers of incarcerated women, some pregnant and addicted to drugs, on Ohio’s county jails and prison system.  And some women are raising their young children in prison.

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