AKRON, Ohio — A new Summit County Common Pleas Court pilot program is underway with a goal of getting immediate help to low-level offenders struggling with drug or alcohol addiction.
The Arraignment Support and Advocacy Program (ASAP) is providing peer recovery coaches during arraignments for people charged with fourth and fifth-degree felony drug offenses and drunk-driving charges.
The idea came from Chris Stahr, who is also the community development director for Valor Court, which assists veterans.
"As far as all the research I've done, I've not seen any court program that offers recovery so early," Stahr said. "The goal is to give people recovery exposure at the earliest possible point."
Stahr understands the struggle. After he got out of the U.S. Army, he developed PTSD, and turned to alcohol before eventually getting hooked on heroin. He committed crimes, including burglary, and served five years of a 10-year sentence.
"I was ultimately charged with multiple felonies," he said.
According to the statistics provided by the court, 46% of felony arraignments are drug-related and half of those are related to opioids. In addition, 63% of the county's failure to appear charges are connected to drug or alcohol cases.
On Wednesday — the first day of the voluntary program — 15 out of approximately 60 defendants were referred to recovery coaches, who can lend a listening ear, help get people to detox or refer them to other agencies for assistance.
Anthony Williams, one of the coaches who once struggled with crack cocaine and spent 16 months in prison, said the immediacy of the program is critical.
"You can get lost. You can get lost immediately. I can remember in the past — after arraignment — if I was able to go home, I was going straight back to drugs," Williams said.
Betsy Ray, another coach was became addicted to crack cocaine and spent a year behind bars, expects offenders will gain hope by interacting with someone who has faced addiction.
"A lot of them, it's just showing them that there is life after drugs because at one point I didn't realize that," Ray said.
Catholic Charities is partnering with the program and pays for the coaches. There is no additional cost to the court for ASAP.
Stahr is optimistic the program will change lives and possibly save them.
"Maybe it will modeled elsewhere and maybe it will multiply," Stahr said.