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Brunner outlines plans for supporting treatment courts

January 11, 2022 (COLUMBUS) — They reduce the rate of offenders returning to jail or prison. They save taxpayers money. And they save lives, keep families together, help people get their lives on track and strengthen our communities.

For three decades, Ohio’s courts have stepped up to help their communities with a variety of innovative treatment courts, known as “specialized dockets”— from drug courts and mental health courts to those built around the particularized needs of veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and other challenges.  These specialized dockets, often developed and presided over by judges with no corresponding reduced regular docket load, help women find freedom from being victimized and sex-trafficked.  They help domestic violence abusers and their families build healthier relationships.  And for many program participants, these programs are the first best chance they’ve ever been offered to find help and begin to write their own future stories.

A leader in bringing the felony drug court to Franklin County 18 years ago when she served on its common pleas bench, Justice Jennifer Brunner today unveiled her plans for the continued growth and improvement of specialized dockets in Ohio as part of her plans if she is elected Chief Justice in 2022.

“Ohio has been a national leader in operating innovative, specialize dockets. If elected Chief Justice, I will use the power of collaborative leadership to ensure that these programs will become thoroughly institutionalized in Ohio’s courts,” Justice Brunner said.

Justice Brunner stated that by the end of her first two years as Chief, the state’s high court will provide a working report to the governor and legislature and to the people of the state, containing evaluation data for how and why specialized dockets work.  She intends to use the data as a basis for revolutionizing criminal justice sanctions, integrating it with the statewide sentencing database and enabling cost savings and more humane and common sense outcomes, with sanctions when possible redirected from incarceration to treatment.

Justice Brunner’s initiative for supporting specialized dockets is part of a broader vision for leading Ohio’s judicial branch.  A current justice of the court who holds judicial experience at both the trial and appellate levels in the state’s most populous county, along with statewide administrative experience as former Ohio Secretary of State, Justice Brunner unveiled her campaign platform in September, with a vision centered around removing barriers to fairness and equality in Ohio’s courts. She is running for a six-year term as Ohio’s 12th Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court on the November 2022 ballot.

“As a common pleas court judge in 2004, drug courts were a fairly new concept in Ohio’s criminal justice system.  I was fortunate to learn from some of the early pioneer judges in common pleas courts in Butler, Richland and Mahoning Counties who had blazed paths before me.  These programs were forged from the ingenuity, hard work and savvy of judges who saw that people were hurting and the justice system could be more effective.  These judges had the courage and foresight to find another way.  They made differences that rippled into the community, helping individual offenders, their families and friends and even the greater community.

Justice Brunner continued, “It was a privilege to work with the Ohio Supreme Court then and so many other members of the treatment and criminal justice systems throughout the state to initiate Franklin County’s adult felony drug court program in 2004, known as the TIES (Treatment is Essential to Success) Program. “That experience taught me how to implement systemic change, even when there was resistance,” Brunner stated. “Thankfully, today treatment courts are enthusiastically accepted as an effective methodology for reducing crime recidivism.”

She continued, “The successes of developing the TIES Program were the result of the power of collective collaboration.  Together we began working with law enforcement and the greater community, demonstrating that treatment works, hope is real, and courts can make a positive difference in people’s lives while ensuring community safety and accountability.”

Here are the highlights of Justice Brunner’s plans for supporting treatment courts in Ohio:

  • Increase the resources from the Ohio Supreme Court dedicated to the Specialized Dockets Section and the Commission on Specialized Dockets.
  • Direct program specialists at the Ohio Supreme Court to devise ways specialized dockets may evaluate the success and challenges of their programs, including defining the data needed by type of court and how to collect it in order to demonstrate how and why specialized dockets work, including recommendations on how this data may be integrated with the statewide sentencing database.
  • Expand coordination with local courts, law enforcement, prosecutors, public defenders, mental health and drug addiction service providers, and local governments to enhance specialized dockets’ effectiveness and successful outcomes.
  • Develop law enforcement collaboration programs to familiarize local law enforcement with treatment courts, especially those operating Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) that work with people with mental illness to toward reducing arrests and increasing access to treatment.
  • Expand the use of technology to enhance the operations of specialized dockets. For example, the recently launched OH VTC Statewide app for veterans treatment courts has potential for expansion for use with other specialized dockets.

There are 256 operational specialized dockets in Ohio that have achieved either initial or final certification, according to the most recent annual report of the Ohio Supreme Court Commission on Specialized Dockets  (December 2020). That’s the most of any state in the nation.

There are seven principal types of specialized dockets in Ohio: Drug Courts, OVI/DUI Court, Drug - Domestic Violence Courts, Drug - Re-entry Courts, Veterans Courts, and Family Dependency Treatment Courts.

The 22-member Commission on Specialized Dockets was established in 2012 by the Supreme Court under the leadership of Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor. Justice Brunner, having firsthand experience as a trial judge presiding over a treatment court, is dedicated to moving these courts to the next level by demonstrating with critical data how and why they work.  As a result of her efforts toward this end, she hopes to further their acceptance and use to realize greater cost savings and toward reducing incarceration and improving outcomes.

The Specialized Dockets Commission advises and guides the staff of the court’s Specialized Dockets Section on:

  • Statewide rules and uniform standards for specialized dockets in Ohio’s courts.
  • Development and delivery of specialized docket services to Ohio courts, including training programs for judges and court personnel.
  • Consideration of  any other issues the  Commission deems necessary to assist the  Supreme  Court and its  staff regarding specialized dockets in Ohio courts.

In a 2018 speech, Chief Justice O’Connor referred to it as the “Specialized Dockets Movement” and as “the new face of our justice system.”

It has been estimated that 90% of those who enter the criminal justice system nationwide struggle with addiction. The average cost to offer treatment to a nonviolent offender is about $4,500 a year, while the average cost of incarcerating them is about $18,000 a year, according to the National Judicial College, an education and training association for judges.

Justice Brunner remembers the tight budget of her drug court, despite her bipartisan efforts with then Justice Eve Stratton in incorporating the court’s operation within the state’s budget.  Even then, items as basic as bus passes and small tokens of recognition for incremental successes were difficult to come by, yet can be the difference between someone completing the program and someone whose obstacles are sometimes too great. “And we can do even more by ramping up grant writing and coordinating resources statewide. This will be a critical part of the program moving forward,” Justice Brunner said.

“Specialized dockets involve community partnerships,” Justice Brunner said.  Specialized docket judges often develop for their courts a network of community partners and service providers. Working together, all of these resources contribute to success.”

Another recurring theme among those in the specialized dockets community is the role that coordinated efforts play in success, Justice Brunner said.

“One of the ways Ohio became a national leader in specialized dockets was the way the Ohio Supreme Court has supported training of judges who volunteered to develop and operate these specialized dockets. Critical to this training was the opportunity for judges, administrators and local authorities to develop and share best practices,” Justice Brunner said. “My administration will make the specialized dockets conference a highlight of the annual judicial calendar, increase the frequency of regional specialized dockets meetings, and expand learning opportunities for courts to share knowledge and information about what works and what doesn’t.”

In announcing the toplines of her platform in September, Justice Brunner said that equalizing and improving technology and system interoperability between courts and the Ohio Supreme Court and making information uniformly accessible to the public will be a top priority of her administration.

She said technology will play a central role in her specialized dockets plan.

“We saw in the pandemic how technology has been able to bridge distances and bring people together virtually to share information and continue the vital work of the courts,” Justice Brunner said.

Making more webinars available, expanding the use of apps for case management, and harmonizing and centralizing data collection and analysis will enable Ohio’s specialized dockets to become integral to improving criminal justice outcomes through therapeutic justice and reducing recidivism, Justice Brunner said.

“The good that specialized dockets do can certainly be seen in cost savings and reduced recidivism, but the real impact is in the lives of the people who help right their lives and give back,” Justice Brunner said. “If you’re ever feeling down, go to a drug court graduation. Look at the visible sense of accomplishment—and purpose—on the faces of so many graduates. Talk to their families. Treatment courts really do make a difference in people’s lives and in our communities.”

Paid for by Jennifer Brunner Committee
Gretchen Green, Treasurer
5001 Horizons Dr., Ste. 209
Columbus, OH 43220
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