Judge needs more help as probation caseload increases


(Posted Sept. 11, 2014)

By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor

With an increase in arrests, changes in sentencing options and a growing number of offenders with addiction issues, Madison County’s Court of Common Pleas needs more help, says Judge Eamon Costello.

On Sept. 8, Costello presented the county commissioners with a request to add a third full-time probation officer to the court’s staff. The cost, including salary and benefits, would be $51,279 a year. The court also has two part-time probation officers.

Local law enforcement officials have stepped up their efforts to nab offenders who commit crimes involving illegal drugs. That’s a positive, Costello said, but one that creates more work for his office.

Due to recent changes in state law, judges can no longer issue prison sentences for certain felony cases. In such cases, they put offenders on local community control (also known as probation).

“With arrest numbers going up, the number of convicted felons we need to supervise on community control is going up,” Costello explained.

Probation officers have two main duties. They conduct pre-sentence investigations, which include background checks, research into family histories, assessment of a crime’s impact on victims, and other factors. This takes six to eight weeks. If the judge subsequently places the offender on community control, a probation officer must supervise the offender for the duration of his or her sentence.

In the past, the Madison County Court of Common Pleas typically issued one-year community control sentences. Costello said he plans to at least double that. The main reason, he said, is because roughly 80 percent of the felons he convicts have an opiate addiction. Heroin, especially, is a big problem in Madison County, he said.

For felons with opiate addictions, Costello is exploring the possibility of including medicinal assisted treatment to the offenders’ community control sentence. One option is Naltrexon, a drug designed to make a person feel ill if he or she ingests heroin. It also dampens the high effect.

Medical experts say a person has a better chance of remaining drug-free in the long-term if they stay on such a medicinal treatment plan for at least two years, Costello said. Hence, his idea to lengthen community control sentences for offenders with opiate addictions.

“Different judges get different results with addiction control. I’m hoping this will change that result,” Costello said.

Longer community control sentences will increase probation officers’ workloads. Costello said he would like to have an additional probation officer ready to go by the start of 2015.

The county commissioners—David Dhume, Mark Forrest and Paul Gross—directed Costello to build the additional officer cost into his 2015 budget request.

Gross also asked about drug abuse prevention efforts. Costello said he hopes to collaborate with Municipal Court Judge Eric Schooley and Juvenile/Probate Court Judge-elect Chris Brown in creating a presentation to take to schools.

“I want a very honest presentation. There may be some discomfort with the graphicness” of what needs to be told, Costello said.

Gross encouraged Costello to pursue the project, saying if an effective presentation or program already existed, everyone would be using it.

“We have to create the model that works… I’d rather fail trying than stand and watch failure because we don’t want to get our hands dirty,” Gross said.

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