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Middletown Municipal Court candidates talk opioid epidemic, jail space

Three Middletown attorneys are vying for election to the unexpired term of the late Middletown Municipal Court Judge Mark W. Wall.

Melynda Cook Howard, James Sherron and Beth Yauch-Joseph are seeking election to the term that ends Dec. 31, 2019.

Wall died in February. In May, Ohio Gov. John Kasich appointed Cook Howard to the bench to fill the office until next month’s election.

The Journal-News asked each candidate about how the court can play a role in the local heroin epidemic and how the city’s jail operation impacts the court. To learn more about the candidates, check out the Journal-News’ online voters guide at vote.Journal-News.com .

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Q: What can be done through the criminal justice system to win the heroin epidemic in Middletown?

Melynda Cook Howard: I cannot say we are ever going to “win” the opioid epidemic, but since I became Judge, overdoses are down every month in our community. This in part is due to the stance I took that jail sentences were going to be imposed if you were convicted of a drug paraphernalia charge, such as needles, straws, or tools to ingest drugs, or a drug possession offense.

The supply end of this epidemic — the drug dealers — are felony offenses so their cases are sent to common pleas court and is therefore outside the control of a municipal court. I know that jailing users of drugs alone is not going to win this fight. Which is why when I sentence a person I engage them in conversation about their problem, the possibility of treatment and give them treatment information, and tell them to write me a letter if they truly want treatment. …

… Since becoming judge, I have increased the treatment options and our providers for Medically Assisted Treatment (MAT) — such as the Vivitrol shot. The Vivitrol shot lasts 30 days and it will stop an opiate user from using.

For those people that are ready for treatment, I have taken the stance that they can be released after 30 to 50 days of incarceration on a stay of their sentence. This front end jail time is important because it allows the offender to begin treatment clean. It also allows for additional jail days to be imposed if they are unsuccessful at treatment and being clean. …

James Sherron: As your next Judge, I will be committed to: jailing drug dealers; zero tolerance of neighborhood thefts by addicts; requiring drug rehabilitation, not simply incarceration; providing the Vivitrol shot for those inmates seeking treatment, prior to release. Vivitrol is currently the best front line treatments available.

Beth Yauch-Joseph: It takes more than the police and court system to fight this epidemic. It takes coordination, cooperation, and communication between a myriad of social systems to be successful. Drug courts are an excellent way that is accomplished. The court, police, probation, social services, addiction treatment services, mental health system, and community resources together, on the same page, working in concert, can address the extensive needs of the addict.

This is not a matter of telling someone to stop what they are doing and punish them if they do not. Unless the addict has received long term treatment to address the underlying issues of their substance use (mental health, injuries, poverty, social issues), it is highly likely they will return to their previous pattern. If they do not have the support to gain employment, appropriate housing, etc., it is also likely they will be placed back in an environment that will jeopardize their recovery. …

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Q: Middletown is unique to other cities in the county because it operates its own jail, one of a few municipal jails left in the state. How does that jail affect decisions made by the municipal judge when handing down sentences that count include incarceration?

Cook Howard: While there are never enough jail beds, I promise you that if an offender before me needs to be incarcerated I will put them in jail in order to ensure the safety of our community and/or themselves. I can not put everyone in jail, but those that need to be in jail will have a place.

Jail population is always a concern as we are limited in space in our city jail — maximum is 70 but the target number is 56. We also have 40 beds for inmates at the county jail. The City Jail houses persons waiting to appear on their case in Middletown Municipal Court and those that have been convicted serving sentences for City ordinance violations. Since I became Judge, going hand in hand with the stance I have taken with drug offenders and drug paraphernalia offenders, I am constantly monitoring the jail population. If our City Jail did not exist, our community’s safety would be in jeopardy as police would not be able to do their jobs on the streets and our court system could not function smoothly.

Sherron: While the decision to close the jail lies with the City Council, I firmly believe we must keep our jail open and I will fight to do so. Having our jail at police headquarters is a major cost saver for the court and the police. A needless depletion of manpower would be necessary as Middletown straddles two counties, and the police would be transporting inmates to and from both Butler and Warren County jails daily. Any savings to the general budget would be offset by added expenses to the court and police. Even more critically, fewer criminals will be jailed. With no jail, many defendants will be given citations for criminal charges and not going to jail. Prisoners will be released faster and the court will have less control over who is released and when. With more criminals on the streets there will be more crime on the streets. With more addicts on the streets there will be more overdoses, less treatment and more deaths. I will advocate in every way possible to prevent the closing of the jail for those reasons.

Yauch-Joseph: The community doesn’t deserve or expect its elected officials to use a jail facility as a long-term boarding house. Jail is meant to be used to protect the public from danger or harm. Having our own jail is a real plus because some offenders need to be removed from society immediately. Currently, most first, second, and third degree felons are held in our county jails until sentenced and sent off to prison. Our non-violent fourth or fifth degree felony offenders are currently staying long-term in the county jails instead of going to prison. Sometimes, there is very little space available in the county jails, making it difficult in other areas of this county to detain misdemeanor offenders. With our own jail, only the Middletown Municipal Court Judge decides who remains in jail and who is set free.

Using part of our jail in concert with a drug court will only help our community. If at the time of an overdose, the addict is charged with a first or second degree misdemeanor, I would have sufficient time for the addict to be assessed and a program designed to help him or her. The addict would remain in jail until he or she could begin inpatient or outpatient treatment.

I will exercise good judgment and consider the public’s best interest when making determinations regarding who is incarcerated. Our jail is a great asset to this community. It would allow me to have sentencing options. I will be creative with sentencing, such as allowing the defendant to serve his or her time in a manner that may allow him or her to not lose a job. It is important to punish those convicted, to protect society, but to also look at the big picture for the community. That is what is fair and just.

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