A dozen defendants sat in Judge Becky Doherty’s HOPE Drug Court, casually discussing Ohio’s Issue 1 that is on the November ballot.

All of them are opposed to it, saying it will hinder efforts for people to stay sober, rather than making treatment more available. They talked about friends they’ve lost to overdoses, people who didn’t get the same opportunities that they had. 

"Nobody comes here on their own," one young woman said.

On Nov. 6, voters will decide the fate of Issue 1, an amendment to the Ohio Constitution.

Supporters say the measure will reduce the number of people in prisons for low-level, nonviolent crimes, putting the money that would be saved into drug treatment and victim services.

But opponents, including Doherty, say it will take away the only tool they have to persuade people to get the help that they need.

"People don’t just walk in on their own and say, ‘Fix me,’" Doherty said of HOPE court. 

The HOPE court — its name stands for "Help, Opportunity and Progress through Education" — is a minimum 16-month program. It has two tracks, one for those eligible for drug treatment intervention in lieu of conviction, and one for those seeking help post-conviction.

The court has hosted two graduations, and two more are planned in the near future.

Every Thursday, Doherty greets each participant by name, getting updates on how well they have complied with the program’s requirements. She commends people for doing things that they have been coached to do, such as refusing to take pain pills after a recent surgery, starting a recovery group, or speaking at a recent conference. Others are encouraged to be better at meeting the program requirements. When a defendant is celebrating a milestone of sobriety, those in attendance applaud in support. During one recent session, Doherty asked participants how they cope with being outside of their comfort zones.

During the sessions, the judge’s bench is decorated with signs featuring the word "Hope," many of them crafted by participants in the court or graduates. Others offer Doherty gifts while giving their updates.

"Every one of these kids has so much to offer," Doherty said of program participants.

Dennis Willard, spokesman for the Ohio Safe & Healthy Communities Campaign which backs the issue, said Portage County is fortunate to have a drug court. That’s something a majority of Ohio’s counties lack, he said. 

But he said the fact that 14 Ohioans die every day is proof that what is being done now isn’t working.

"We’ve been tough on crime and the prison population is exploding," he said. "The tentacles of this epidemic are everywhere."

If Issue 1 is approved, he said, drug trafficking would still be a crime, and people could still be sent to prison for other crimes committed aside from drug possession. But he said giving people the "Scarlet F" of a felony conviction makes it harder for them to get jobs. When opponents of the issue tell Willard that the amendment "isn’t the solution," he said they are often at a loss to tell him what will work.

"All we’re saying is, let’s try something different," he said.

Doherty, however, said Issue 1 will eliminate her drug court because only people with felony convictions are allowed to participate, giving them an opportunity to have the charges dismissed from their records.

"Without that incentive, without that motivation, you would not see folks in treatment," she said.

The judge and her defendants say Ohio will see a flood of drugs into the state because people will face no consequences for using them. Willard said that’s something that’s already happening in Ohio, which ranks second in the nation for overdose deaths.

While Willard points out that drug trafficking would remain a crime, Doherty said people who are convicted of drug possession actually are selling the drugs that they carry. Issue 1, she said, would allow people to possess "enough fentanyl to kill 100 people" without facing jail, and allow people to repeatedly ignore the requirements of their probation without consequences.

During a recent status update at HOPE court, one participant, Jay, confessed to a recent relapse after being offered alcohol during a recent family gathering. He said he ended up spending seven days in jail. He said he was grateful to be arrested, and said the SCRAM bracelet that checks his system for alcohol keeps him accountable.

"I’m thankful for it," he said, adding that he appreciates the support from the HOPE Court.

"These people actually give a crap," Jay said. "They don’t see you just as a person who made a mistake, they see your potential." Of Doherty, he said, "you can see in her eyes that she really cares."

Doherty said she cautions voters about Issue 1 everywhere she goes, even talking about the ballot initiative at a local bowling alley.

At a recent session, Jennifer Jones, one of the first graduates from HOPE Court, stopped by to tell Doherty that she had already voted no on the issue. She will celebrate her second anniversary of sobriety next month.

"Drug court saved my life," she said.

Reporter Diane Smith can be reached at 330-298-1139 or dsmith@recordpub.com.