Inside Venango County’s Problem-Solving Court: A Look at How to Help High-Risk, High-Need Drug Users (Part One)

| March 14, 2023

FRANKLN, Pa. (EYT) – About a week ago, I responded to a question posted on Facebook by the Venango County Democrats asking what are the biggest challenges that rural Pennsylvanians face.

My response, zeroing in on Venango County, was, “The drug epidemic and Venango County’s obsession with criminal prosecution of drug users rather than drug dealers and distributors.”

(Photo credit: Ekaterina Bolovtsova/Pexels)

“Venango County incarcerates its citizens at twice the rate of the rest of the state,” I continued. “We’re literally Number One in incarceration per capita.”

I then posted a link, in a very self-serving way, I guess, to an article I wrote last October that pointed to a study by the Prison Policy Initiative and the Public Interest Law Center that showed Venango County does, in fact, incarcerate its residents at a staggeringly high rate—the highest in the state—that’s twice the state average. Philadelphia County is in second place.

I’ve been on a bit of a crusade ever since I read that study.

It just boggles my mind that in our little corner of the Keystone State, we would even have enough criminals to put in jail. And yet, the Venango County Prison is overflowing with inmates. Outgoing VCP Warden Mark Bishop told me last November that he had to house female inmates on cots in the chapel because he didn’t have enough beds in the prison.

One of the dangers of crusading, at least in my experience, is that one can easily become blinded to what’s going on around them.

Yes, there are problems in the judicial system here in Venango County. But, my self-applied blinders were torn off when I read a response by my friend and neighbor, Greg Merkel.

“Those numbers are staggering and are a reason why we need to fight to keep Problem-Solving Court active in Venango County,” he said.

I’d never heard of Problem-Solving Court.

I’d venture to say that many of my dear readers haven’t heard of it either. So, I decided to investigate a bit, starting with an email to Assistant District Attorney Kyle Peasley. Kyle and I only recently met at a Franklin Area Chamber of Commerce mixer. But, the previous time I’d reached out to him, he’d been quick to reply.

My email began with the obligatory “Hey Kyle” and “Hope you’re well,” and then jumped into the reason I was reaching out. About an hour later, I heard back from him.

“Our office is the heart of the Problem-Solving Court program,” he said. “It truly is an amazingly helpful program for high-risk, high-need drug users. Would you be interested in maybe attending/observing a Problem-Solving Court session in the near future? I could find an upcoming session and you can see all about it.”

After a quick back and forth, I was all set to attend the March 7 session of Problem-Solving Court, which was held on the third floor of the Venango County Courthouse, in Courtroom 3.

Let me set the scene for you.

Courtroom 3 is a small room as courts go. There’s a bench, a witness box, two tables where opposing sides of a legal matter might sit, a jury box, and a gallery area with a few rows of long benches that resemble church pews. As you’re sitting in the gallery, the jury box is in front of you, and on the right, the outside windows of the courthouse are behind it. On the opposite side of the room is a media cart with a large monitor that can be seen from everywhere in the room.

Directly in front of you, behind the bench, is a ten-foot-wide mural of Drake Well with a young man and young woman fishing along the bank of Oil Creek.

What is Problem-Solving Court?

Before I get into the session I joined, let’s talk about what a problem-solving court is.

Problem-solving courts are specifically designed to tackle particular types of cases. These courts operate collaboratively, seeking to assist defendants in overcoming the underlying problems that contribute to their criminal actions.

Pennsylvania has several kinds of problem-solving courts, including drug courts, mental health courts, and veterans courts, all of which provide defendants with treatment, counseling, and support services. These courts aim to decrease the likelihood of re-offending and to enhance outcomes for individuals and communities.

While participants in problem-solving courts are closely monitored and held accountable for their actions, they are also rewarded for making progress and achieving their objectives. The primary goal of a problem-solving court is to enable participants to become productive and law-abiding members of society.

The type of problem-solving court that we have in Venango County is called an Adult Drug/DUI Court. There are five phases to the program in drug court. According to The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania, they are:

Phase One: Stabilization— During this initial phase, participants undergo a comprehensive assessment to determine their individual needs and receive a personalized treatment plan. They must attend court and treatment sessions, submit to drug testing, and meet regularly with their probation officer to establish a solid foundation for their recovery.

Phase Two: Early Recovery— Participants are expected to remain drug-free and continue attending treatment and court sessions. They may also be required to participate in support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) to strengthen their recovery efforts.

Phase Three: Middle Recovery— As participants progress through the program, they begin to take on more responsibilities, such as seeking employment or furthering their education. They continue to attend treatment and court sessions and are encouraged to maintain their involvement in support groups.

Phase Four: Late Recovery— In this phase, participants are expected to be fully committed to their recovery and have likely completed their treatment program. They continue to attend court sessions and may be required to engage in community service or other activities that promote their continued sobriety.

Phase Five: Aftercare— Participants have successfully completed the program and are transitioning back into the community. They may continue to attend support groups and meet with their probation officer regularly to ensure they maintain their progress and continue to thrive in their recovery.

Check back tomorrow as we take a closer look at Venango County’s Problem-Solving Court.

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Category: Feature, Local News

Gavin Fish is a reporter for EYT Media Group and YouTuber based in Venango County. In addition to his YouTube Channel, he has contributed to investigations and reports for ABC News, Investigation Discovery, and Fox Nation, and has collaborated on projects developed for Netflix, Oxygen, Discovery Channel, Amazon Prime, and Hulu.
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