Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Ashtabula County's 10th Anniversary Drug Court Celebration
Oct. 26, 2018

(Remarks prepared for delivery on Oct. 26, 2018, at the Spire Institute in Geneva, OH.)

Thank you, Judge Yost, for that introduction.

And thank you for the invitation to speak here tonight ... and to allow me to share in your celebration.

The Ashtabula Drug Court was established by your predecessor, Judge Alfred Mackey.

Judge Mackey’s efforts and those of the staffs over the years ... and the efforts of Judge Yost, who succeeded in the role ... have saved lives, turned them around and gave parents, siblings, spouses and children back their loved on.

Indeed, all of you involved in this effort have made rescues. By doing so, you have helped keep families together, too.  

The first Ashtabula Drug Court session took place on Nov. 3, 2008.

Judge Mackey’s ... vision, determination, and perseverance has been carried on by Judge Yost, who  received the drug court gavel in January 2015.

After looking into the successes that have been made here I can declare that tonight is a celebration of all the things that drug courts do right.

Drug courts take a public health approach. Courts work hand-in-hand with the medical community, using Medication-Assisted Treatment to fight this vicious disease called opioid addiction.

We now have 170 drug courts in Ohio. Overall, we have 245 Specialized Dockets courts in Ohio. In addition to drug courts we have veterans’ courts, Family Dependency courts, mental health courts and several human trafficking courts, and more.

There were only 64 Specialized Dockets courts in 2003 when you started your efforts here.

That makes you pioneers.

Our statewide drug court effort has grown in size. It has grown in success as well. So much so that Ohio is held up as a model nationally.

More than 70 percent of drug court participants graduate statewide.

This growth and achievement has come about in no small part because of your courts, and the other courts that had that pioneering spirit years ago.

Ashtabula blazed a trail ... a clear trail that could be followed by others. You shared your learnings .... You’ve shared information about your program and the ups and downs of those you set out to heal.

The procedures that lead to this success ... including the certification process ... are shared with other states by our Supreme Court staff.

Drug abuse, after all, is a national crisis. Ohio is part of the solution.

Your court succeeded ... and the proof of that success is in the smiles I see around this room on the faces of the graduates.

So far, 161 participants have successfully completed the drug court program here in Ashtabula County. 

I applaud the framework you’ve set up here.

You have a comprehensive treatment team, which includes a prosecutor, defense counsel, treatment providers, and a program coordinator.

Your Prosecutor Nicholas Iarocci is here as is former prosecutor Tom Sartini.

Treatment Providers Michael Murphy with Lake Area Recovery Center and Matt Butler withCommunity Counseling Center are also here as is the Program Coordinator Stephanie Belconi.

Your defense counsel, a believer in drug courts from the very beginning, Marie Lane is also a member of the statewide Commission on Specialized Dockets. Marie please stand up. 

A few weeks ago, we held our annual Specialized Dockets Conference in Columbus.  

There, four graduates of Specialized Dockets courts told, in great detail, their stories of struggle and survival.

Theirs are stories that I know you in this room are familiar with:

The sickness of addiction ... and of exploitation.


Setbacks, relapses struggles .... Followed by another try and another and another.

But, ultimately, a victory for you and your future.

The commitment of the Ashtabula County Drug Court has been unwavering.

In fact, I understand that some of your drug court graduates are such believers that they now WORK for drug treatment facilities.

What an achievement!

I want to mention a few of you by name.

Heather Zall graduated from this drug court in November 2016 and is now working at the Lake Area Recovery Center.

Mia Sexton graduated from this drug court in March 2016 and now works for the Glenbeigh Treatment Center.

Holly Lane graduated in 2012 and is now working for the Lake-Geauga Recovery Center.

Several of you have become successful entrepreneurs.

Rocky Wiles graduated from this drug court in July 2011 and is the proud owner of Wiles Automotive.

Michael Brenneman graduated from here in July 2016 and is the proud owner of Mike’s Lawn Care.

I’m so happy for your successes.

I also want to recognize Matthew Mikulin. 

Matt graduated from drug court in July 2010 and finished college.

He didn’t stop there. Matt went on to graduate from the Case Western Reserve University Law School. 

Well ... he didn’t stop there, either.

I’m proud to report that Matt passed the Ohio bar exam in May of this year and is now a practicing attorney.

Congratulations Matt!

There are many other graduates, many of them here tonight, who have good jobs and have become productive, contributing members of the community.

To the 19 current drug court participants who are here tonight ... keep up the good work! We all believe in you!

I know it is hard work, getting through drug court. But let me say this, not only do you have the support of this drug court and this treatment team, you have the support of the entire community.

Celebrations like this serve a purpose beyond congratulations. They allow us to get the word out about the effectiveness of drug courts and how they operate.

That kind of knowledge is sorely needed.

I have to report – sadly – that not enough Ohioans know what the people in this room have accomplished and what other Ohio drug courts have accomplished.

The result of that failure to be informed ... is state Issue 1.

Issue 1 is a proposed constitutional amendment that would remove the incentive that serves as the basis of our programs. That is:

Offenders choosing treatment over incarceration.

That is the key.

Should Issue 1 pass, we lose the progress we’ve made in drug courts.

Worst of all, we leave thousands of addicted Ohioans without the incentive to get treatment, stay sober ... and to make the kind of progress that we witnessing here tonight.

What a sad irony it would be if Ohio, one of the nation’s leaders in drug court success, tossed it all away because of a wrong-headed ballot issue disguised as a solution.

This ballot issue is being financed by millions and millions of dollars from people outside Ohio who think they have a great idea for us. They didn’t bother to visit a drug court or talk to a judge.

You probably know that I have been traveling around the state to warn Ohioans about this dangerous ballot issue.

Issue 1 sounds good, the way it is advertised.

In truth, it’s just packaging. Good intentions are used as the wrapping paper. Open the box and pull away the bubble wrap and there’s an atrocious piece of work inside.

If it passes, Issue 1 will tear down the TEN years of work you have invested in turning lives around.

I have been encouraging judges to speak out, and they are.

As a constitutional amendment, Issue 1 would forbid judges from using the proven incentive of jail that encourages addicts to participate in treatment.

There are many aspects of the reform agenda that we can agree upon.

No judge wants to sentence a first-time, low-level substance abuser to prison for possession.  Treatment, instead of incarceration, is always the way to go.

We all agree about that.

We also agree about the need for more drug courts and more treatment facilities.

Yet, drug courts will be greatly diminished if this issue passes.

Who would agree to go through a year or more of drug court if all they are facing is a misdemeanor charge and there is no possibility of incarceration? That’s what Issue 1 would do.

The ads promote Issue 1 as a measure that would fix our problems. No, it would make things worse.

A major part of the overall answer to the drug problem in Ohio can be found right here ... in this room.

Those answers are written on paper ... the diplomas in the hands of the friends and loved ones we are honoring tonight.

We need our fellow Ohioans to understand that.

So, please join me in telling your stories. Let your friends and neighbors know that this process is tough ... that it has its ups and downs with each individual ... but that positive results are happening.

Drug courts work. The people of Ashtabula County were among the first to know that ... to see that reality up close in the lives of people they know.

Please speak up. You know the truth about drug courts.

Spread the word through your social media and in person.

Urge people to first and foremost vote… and to read the ballot language of Issue 1. And to vote NO

People are already voting and Election Day itself is just 11 days away.

Once again, congratulations to the graduates ... the current ones and those from the past 10 years.

Congratulations to the families who are here to celebrate and share in these great milestones.

And thank you to the court staff and all those who work with the courts to support these gallant efforts.

God Bless.