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Judges personally calling those in drug supervision, re-entry programs, during COVID-19 outbreak

Posted at 4:25 PM, Mar 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-26 16:28:01-04

CLEVELAND — Two Cuyahoga County judges are spending hours personally phoning people enrolled in two vital court programs as they work to successfully reintegrate into the community amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Both people in a special "Recovery Court" docket for drug and sexual abuse cases, and others in a "Re-Entry" program for those who qualified to be released from prison before full sentences had been served, benefit from the strict routine and supervision provided by the court.

But now, most court proceedings and programs are almost ground to a halt as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, leaving those in both the re-entry and drug court programs feeling more "disconnected" from those they depend on for help.

"Staying in touch is extremely important to them," says Cuyahoga Common Pleas Judge Joan Synenberg, who supervises defendants at the special "Recovery Court" docket.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, she has been personally calling over a hundred participants who are successfully recovering from opioid addiction and sexual trauma to "help them stay clean and stay focused."

"Loneliness can be a devastating factor for many," says Synenberg, "once they get to us, they're in a very bad way."

Participants in a court-supervised "Re-Entry" program are also at risk of what Judge Nancy Margaret Russo describes as potentially "going off the rails."

Those who are enrolled in the program have been released from prison before their full sentence expires. They qualify for the program after being carefully screened. The program has achieved a 92 percent success rate in successfully reintegrating participants back into the community, saving taxpayers at least $1 million dollars just in prison housing costs.

"It's very collaborative. We engage them, require them to work, have treatment and psychological counseling," says Russo.

But like Synenberg, Russo is making personal phone calls every day to ensure participants do not begin to feel isolated or abandoned as a result of COVID-19 isolation.

"These are people who have struggled for years with alcohol and drugs that contributed to their crimes," said Russo. "Now it seems the entire universe is trying to defeat them and that feeling is magnified."

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