On his last day presiding over Franklin County Municipal Court's specialty program for heroin addicts, Scott VanDerKarr recalled last week that one of the defendants handed him a teddy bear.

On his last day presiding over Franklin County Municipal Court's specialty program for heroin addicts, Scott VanDerKarr recalled last week that one of the defendants handed him a teddy bear.

Her son wanted him to have it, she said, because the judge had given the boy back his mother.

Speaking last week at a meeting of Northland-area Block Watch coordinators, VanDerKarr said such moments were heartwarming.

"When you change a life like that, that's what specialty dockets do," he added.

However, VanDerKarr said he decided to retire in January after 20 years on the bench in order to champion establishing even more specialty dockets in Ohio and beyond.

"He knows the ins and outs of addiction," Officer Scott Clinger, the Division of Police liaison for one of the precincts in the Northland neighborhood, said in introducing the judge.

"I don't have a chemical-dependency degree, but at this point, I've had a couple thousand addicts come before me," VanDerKarr said.

The former jurist said he became a consultant on addiction services because of the heroin "epidemic that has hit our society."

"The last five years is a skyrocket," VanDerKarr said.

In 2014, he said, 2,482 people in Ohio died from heroin overdoses.

VanDerKarr told the Block Watch coordinators he fully expects that figure to top 3,000 when the statistics are announced shortly for 2015.

"Heroin use has increased across the U.S. among men and women, most age groups and all income levels," according to the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Some of the greatest increases occurred in demographic groups with historically low rates of heroin use: women, the privately insured and people with higher incomes."

According to the CDC, the rate of heroin-related overdose deaths nearly quadrupled between 2002 and 2013, and more than 8,200 people died in 2013.

Putting addicts behind bars isn't the answer to the drug epidemic, according to VanDerKarr. Placing them in specialty courts provides even greater accountability than putting them on probation, he said.

In drug court, defendants must appear before the judge once a week, whereas probation officers with heavy caseloads probably only see clients once a month.

"I'm not saying no jail," VanDerKarr said. "I'm saying don't take someone who's basically a user and put them in prison. You can't fix someone in 30 days. You need long-term treatment to beat an addiction, especially with heroin.

"The more we can do, the more we can make the system work better, the safer you're going to be and the better off the addiction and family are going to be."