After years of tangling with substance abuse and the criminal justice system, Aaron Cook is now clean and sober and holding down a job doing something he loves.
He’s officially in the third stage of the Summit County Drug Court program: rebuilding.
Through the program, which offers nonviolent habitual offenders an opportunity to turn their lives around through support and treatment as an alternative to jail, Judge Karen Romeo and other officials on the team try to help participants establish a stable life and give them the tools to stay on track when they graduate.
But that’s difficult for some who have a long criminal history that can scare off potential employers.
Thursday morning Romeo hosted a meet and greet with local business owners to try to drum up support — and opportunities — for drug court participants in the local job market.
“I truly do feel this program can make a difference in the community,” Romeo said. “Would you rather have somebody who’s in the county, possibly has a criminal history, possibly is hanging out with folks who are not a great influence, or would you rather have somebody in the community who is intensively supervised by the court? These folks have so much to lose if they mess up.”
Drug court participants undergo regular drug testing and treatment and sometimes are in contact with members of the program team daily. For most, failure in the program means jail time.
“I’ve really enjoyed the drug court program. It helps me,” Cook, seated at the prosecution table in a courtroom at the Summit County Justice Center, told community members who attended Thursday’s meet and greet. “Finding jobs in the community is sometimes difficult, but it’s very helpful to get involved with the community and to show people that you are changing and that change is possible with commitment and hard work.”
Some business owners expressed concerns about employing participants after they graduate from drug court and are no longer judicial supervision. But officials say alternative judicial programs like this one across the country prove to be much more effective than traditional corrections approaches. Graduates of drug courts and similar programs are much more likely to stay sober and stay out of trouble than those who just serve time in jail — as few as 35 percent of people who complete drug court re-offend, compared with 80 or 90 percent of people who have been incarcerated, Romeo said.
“The way we’ve been doing things is not working,” public defender Dana Christiansen said Thursday. “This is a much better way to treat individuals who have substance abuse problems.”
Others who attended the gathering represented companies that have already hired individuals who they said would otherwise have been disqualified from the recruitment process because of their criminal history because they were in drug court. They said the program’s regular drug tests and intense supervision help take some of the risk off the employer.