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County Court Creates Programs To Help Prostitutes, Drug Abusers

Franklin County Municipal Court is creating two new programs to help prostitutes and drug abusers avoid jail time and get treatment. Officials say it will save city and county government $2 million a year.

The effort is an extension of a program which helps the mentally ill. The new programs are aimed at people who commit non-violent prostitution and low level drug crimes.

Columbus City Councilmember Eileen Paley proposed the idea. She says the programs' weekly visits provide structure to help people overcome addiction and other damaging behaviors. "It's kind of like a group joint counseling session in open court. And then they have social workers and probation officers that provide recommendations as to what kind of counseling - drugs, or other things - that may be necessary," says Paley.

Once convicts qualify and agree to take part in the voluntary program, they attend weekly counseling sessions and receive other treatments for two years.

The mental health treatment alternative is five years old. Municipal Court Judge Scott VanDerKarr says so far it has graduated somewhere between 70 to 100 people.

"So even though those aren't huge numbers, those are still very positive numbers, and financially can be justified. Because we show we're saving about $300,000 a year just in jail costs with our mental health program," says VanDerKarr. Judge VanDerKarr says any perception that the program is too lenient is wrong. He says the average offender serves about 16 days in jail - but that they often re-offend and come back a few months later. "That's not accomplishing anything. So to say you're going to get them out of jail maybe on an average two weeks quicker, but you're going to change their life where they don't come back, I don't think that's being soft on crime."