Franklin County Municipal Court Judge Scott VanDerKarr, one of the first judges in Ohio to give drug offenders a second chance by creating a special docket that has grown to 200 addicts, is resigning after 20 years on the bench.
VanDerKarr told The Dispatch he will step down this week, but he plans to continue working with drug addicts and their families where he hopes to make a dent in the deadly drug crisis.
'I want to go out and fight the epidemic and try and make a bigger impact,' VanDerKarr said. 'We're losing close to 3,000 people a year' to drug overdoses.
He said he will work to start more drug courts in Ohio as a private consultant, and provide addiction services to families with drug issues outside the criminal court system. The latter work he will do with the Columbus-based Koffel Law Firm.
VanDerKarr, 58, said leaving the bench was a tough decision. 'It's crushing. I care about these individuals.'
Launched five years ago, VanDerKarr's drug court relies on intensive supervision, treatment, accountability and " when necessary " discipline, with services catering to drug addicts.
Defendants come to court each week, where they talk with VanDerKarr, treatment providers and other agency representatives about their progress and challenges. As presiding judge, VanDerKarr serves as treatment coordinator, supporter and disciplinarian.
Those who fail random drug tests go back to jail. While many relapse, 70 percent graduate from the program.
Such specialty courts aim to pull together community resources to help offenders through treatment instead of sending them to prison. Ohio has 85 drug courts throughout the judicial system.
While the approach is not how a court typically operates, VanDerKarr believes drug courts can change lives.
'I think we are turning a corner but we have a long way to go.'
Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien asked VanDerKarr, a former assistant prosecutor, to oversee a drug court five years ago.
'He's passionate about it and caring, especially with this proliferation of heroin,' O'Brien said.
'People have called me and said he's saved their family member's life. It really has made a difference, and I hate to see Scott go.'
Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor said VanDerKarr 'has been an outspoken advocate about the benefits of drug courts in reducing incarceration and recidivism rates. By operating an adult drug court since 2009 and later adding another drug court focused solely on opiate addiction, Judge VanDerKarr has helped many Franklin County offenders obtain the holistic substance-abuse treatment they need to get better.'
Municipal Court Judge Michael T. Brandt, who joined the bench two years after VanDerKarr, said he 'wasn't totally in favor' of the specialty court when it was proposed.