Drug court judge discusses successes, challenges

Thoughts were shared on how to improve Marion County’s problem-solving courts while keeping the past, present and future in mind during an Indiana law school symposium on Friday.

As the presiding judge for the Marion County adult-drug and re-entry courts, Jose Salinas spoke to a packed house at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law about the evolution of his courts since their inception 20 years earlier.

Salinas expressed his concerns with certain aspects of the program, as well as his hopes for solving them in the future. He listed several things he wishes to change, including the number of “clients” he can accept into his drug-treatment program.

Currently, the drug-treatment and re-entry program each have three case managers who work with drug offenders. In total, the six case managers can handle a maximum of 150 clients at a time. Salinas said that’s not enough to address the drug crisis in the city.

“On the drug treatment side, there’s over 7,000 people on probation and we’re seeing 150. I’m going to be honest with you, we are not making a dent in the crime rate in this city,” he said. “But that 150 people that we have in our program, we are making a dent in their life. The problem is, when you have that size, it doesn’t show up in the overall numbers.”

He further explained that if the drug court’s approach was applied to those 7,000 individuals, half of whom he said are probably addicts, then the city’s crime rate would go down.

Salinas additionally expressed his desire for the court’s case managers to see the living environments his clients are coming from and returning to.

“You need to go to their house and see what the heck they are dealing with,” he said. “Having a house or a roof over your head is sometimes not doable for these clients.”

With so many program participants at or below the poverty line, Salinas knows the importance of taking their home life into consideration in each case. 

“Too many of my colleagues don’t believe our clients when they say, ‘I didn’t have money for the bus. I didn’t have money for the drug test,’” he said. “If you’ve been there, and you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, then you’re not going to be as fast to say ‘I don’t believe you.’”

Lastly, the judge stated his frustration that addicts who enter the drug-treatment program don’t enter until eight or nine months after their arrest. In his mind, it should be a much quicker process.

“If this was a perfect world, we would get an addict into our program within the first 60-90 days,” Salinas said. “The faster you get them into our program, the greater chance we have at helping them. Getting our client in the program nine months after they’re arrested doesn’t serve them well.”

Salinas said he understands the legal requirements that slow down the process are necessary, such as obtaining evidence and examinations, but he wishes there was a better solution.

In retrospect, Salinas said the drug and re-entry courts have continued to evolve during his 11 years on the bench. One big philosophy change included making the switch from focusing on first-time offenders in the drug-treatment program to “high level” addicts.

 “We want the higher risk, higher need. We want the addicts,” he said. “What we care about is, are they an addict, how much of an addict are they, and can we help them?”

An additional philosophy change was the implementation of medication assisted treatment. Although it took some serious convincing, Salinas realized MAT was necessary for some clients in order for them to perform day-to-day functions.

“When I started, if you were taking anything, you couldn’t graduate our program,” he said. “We’ve all had to come around to this medical assisted treatment in our program. It’s not on board with everybody across the state, but it should be. Because that is the way of the future.”

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