Alexandra Arriaga, The Marshall Project

Cuyahoga County has two main paths to avoid a felony conviction for people who face criminal charges related to a drug or alcohol addiction. Options to address substance use as a way to reduce crime and the consequences of a criminal record have existed for decades but have expanded in recent years. The two main programs available are Intervention in Lieu of Conviction and drug courts. 

What is Intervention in Lieu of Conviction?

Ohio established this type of court diversion program 1976, around the same time the federal government started a campaign to crack down on drug use and trafficking.

The idea was to  offer a pathway  to treatment for people struggling with substance use, “in lieu” – or in place of –  a criminal conviction. The intervention program is reserved for people with a limited criminal history, which generally means people facing a felony charge for the first time. To take part, they have to be open to participating in an addiction treatment program and have what the court deems a “low” or “moderate risk” substance use issue. This could mean marijuana, alcohol or some cocaine use. Participation is optional. 

Another similar program, called the Early Intervention Program, was available previously but is ending and people are now being routed to the intervention program or one of the drug courts. 

What does it take to qualify for Intervention in Lieu of Conviction?

If drug or alcohol use was a factor that led to an arrest or criminal charges, the defendant facing a felony conviction can tell the court, and they may be referred to one of these programs. Defendants with certain charges are not accepted.

For example, anyone charged with a violent or sex offense is not eligible. Neither are people charged with driving under the influence or manufacturing or selling drugs.

If a person is qualified for the intervention program and wants to participate, here’s what happens next:

  • An addiction services provider will do a free substance use assessment and give their report to the court. 
  • The court will hold a hearing to review the assessment and determine if they are a good candidate for treatment.    
  • If approved, the defendant will have to plead guilty before starting the program. The means they give up their rights to have the evidence against them heard in court.
  • If the court decides not to send the defendant to the intervention program, it must provide a written explanation. Anyone denied treatment will face criminal proceedings. 

What does success look like?

Completing the intervention program can include meeting with a probation officer once a month, doing up to 50 hours of community service, and passing a drug test every two weeks or so. A substance abuse treatment provider may also recommend therapy, peer support, withdrawal management and treatment for mental health disorders, as well as emergency support for a person struggling to meet basic needs like food and housing. 

At the end of the program, which lasts a minimum of one year, the plea will be dismissed and expunged, meaning it is removed from the criminal record. 

How are the drug court programs different?

Cuyahoga County established drug courts in 2008 to accept defendants with greater challenges, such as opiate dependencies or repeat criminal histories. If a person’s drug use is more serious or long term, they’ll be referred to drug court, which involves more regular drug testing and closer supervision, support and treatment. 

Cuyahoga County’s Common Pleas Court has several drug courts for people charged with felony crimes. Each is run by a different judge. Participation is optional. Judge David Matia oversees a drug court for defendants who have medication assisted treatment. Judge Kellie A. Gallagher heads up a standard drug court. Judge Joan Synenberg runs the recovery court, which serves defendants with substance use and trauma-related mental health issues. 

The drug court programs have two tracks: diversion and non-diversion. 

The prosecutor’s office has to approve a defendant to be eligible for the diversion track in drug court.  If the prosecutor doesn’t give approval they can still participate and graduate but would still have a conviction on their record for the case. The person could apply at a later time to have the case sealed.

To qualify for diversion:

  • Generally, they can have no more than one previous felony conviction.
  • The defendant would have to plead guilty and a judge would accept that plea. 
  • They would participate in the program, move through the steps and then apply for graduation. 

What does success look like for drug court participants?

The drug courts aim to prevent substance abuse or dependency from resulting in criminal activity.  Defendants whose cases are in the diversion track who graduate drug court will have their cases dismissed and sealed.

How often do people complete the intervention and drug court programs?

Like other court diversion programs, there’s not a clear measure shared with the public of how many people successfully complete Intervention in Lieu of Conviction. 

Here’s what we know:

  • In 2021, 365 people entered the program, or 3% of defendants, according to the court’s annual report. 
  • In 2020, the court referred 424 people, or 5% of defendants.

The drug courts, which receive state or federal grant funding, report some information to the government but graduation rates are not included in the court’s annual report. Here’s what the court reports:

  • In 2021, the drug court programs evaluated 179 cases for participation and admitted 83 people to the three drug court dockets. The program varies in length for different defendants and multiple graduation ceremonies are held throughout the year.  
  • In 2021, 70 people graduated from the programs.

Have you participated in Intervention in Lieu of Conviction or a drug court program? We want to hear from you! Share your experiences and insights by filling out a short form, emailing us at testify@themarshallproject.org, or leaving us a voice message at ‪(216) 446-5001‬. 

The Marshall Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system. Through a partnership with Signal Cleveland, The Marshall Project is weaving more resident voices into its reporting and building an understanding about how the justice system works — and doesn’t work — in Cleveland.