4 seeking Niles bench pledge specialized dockets

NILES — Niles Municipal Court could see specialized dockets or responses to drug, domestic violence, mental health or housing cases if any of the four men seeking the Democratic nomination for Niles Municipal Court judge is elected in the general election.

Gil Blair, John Gargano, Chris Shaker and Terry Swau-ger are competing in the May 2 primary election for judge in the municipal court — which hears Niles, McDonald and Weathersfield misdemeanor criminal cases, civil cases and traffic cases. The position is pays $125,850 a year.

Blair, a Weathersfield trustee and Warren assistant prosecutor, said treatment for those charged with drug crimes should be available at the first court appearance.

“The big issues facing our communities is heroin and housing. It is imperative that a judge comes in with relative experience, someone who understands opioid addiction and what is happening with these cases. In Warren, I deal with opioid addiction-related cases every day,” Blair said.

Blair said the court could use programs modeled after successful methods used in Warren Municipal Court that connect treatment and recovery to defendants facing charges connected with opioid addiction.

But, Blair said, if the defendant is victimizing people, jail and other sentencing options would be an option.

Blair would also like intervention programs for people accused of domestic violence.

“There is a significant need for anger management and batterers intervention in domestic violence cases. In Warren, if a charge is going to be reduced, they have to go through a program monitored by the probation office,” Blair said.

And the municipal court should have streamlined process to handle housing code violations — getting able-bodied offenders in quickly for swift action, while working with older or sick people who might need more time to comply.

Gargano, who is on unpaid leave from his position as director of Trumbull County Job and Family Services while running in the primary, said getting a drug court is essential to help defendants get out of a pattern of drug use, court appearances, followed by more drug use and court appearances.

“We need to offer a way to get into counseling, for therapy, to get to the root of the problem. This is a social issue. We need to get family involved. And the person will need to follow the program successfully until it is complete, and if they do, won’t have to go to jail,” Gargano said.

There are grant programs that could help set up the drug court, and maybe even pay for some treatment, Gargano said.

“It is a serious epidemic, and the municipal court has limited authority for incarceration. If someone is sentenced to six months behind bars, it doesn’t really help them. They are clean for a short time, get out and then are right back on it again. We need to stem that problem, and not just offer incarceration,” Gargano said.

If grants or insurance won’t cover the cost of the treatment, the court could charge the defendant extra fees, Gargano said.

“Drug court really needs to happen. There is no where to house these first-time offenders, and we can’t just send them on their way,” said Chris Shaker, a private practice attorney.

Shaker said Vivitrol, a monthly shot that can effectively block opioid cravings in most people, looks like a great solution.

It requires a person to be clean for a week and is usually received in conjunction with counseling, Shaker said.

It is very expensive — sometimes more than $1,000 a shot — but it is covered by the Medicaid expansion and it has helped with a lot of professional people who have become addicted, Shaker said. The court could not force someone to take a shot, but having it available as an option would be a start, Shaker said.

“We need a plan to get people back on their feet,” Shaker said.

Plus, jails and prisons are so crowded, Shaker said, treatment options make the most sense for the addicted who end up in front of a judge, Shaker said.

While Swauger said he agrees the next Niles Municipal Court judge handling cases connected to drug addiction should have the option to use a drug court, Niles doesn’t need one of its own.

“If we were to have our own drug court, we would be competing for the same number of limited resources with the other court functioning in the area,” said Swauger, Niles prosecutor and law director.

That is why the municipal court should form a partnership with another drug court, and bring a specialized docket to Niles that other Trumbull County courts don’t already offer, Swauger said.

While the state allows mental health courts — in which special consideration and action plans are provided to qualifying defendants who can sometimes get treated instead of convicted — there are none in Trumbull County, Swauger said.

But there are already several drug courts — including in Girard and Newton Falls municipal courts.

Swauger said he would be willing to work with Girard to help the court get permission from the Ohio Supreme Court to accept defendants outside of its jurisdiction, while creating a mental health court Girard and other communities could use too.

“I don’t see the benefit of competing for the same resources. And, a person using drugs in Niles is using them in Girard, is using them in Hubbard and Warren. It would benefit us all,” Swauger said.

Partnerships and offering something not already available in the county is the way to best serve people living in the jurisdiction, Swauger said.


Gil Blair

AGE: 46


OCCUPATION: Warren prosecutor and assistant law director, Weathersfield trustee

John Gargano

AGE: 60


OCCUPATION: Attorney and director of Trumbull County Job and Family Services

Chris Shaker

AGE: 58


OCCUPATION: Private practice attorney

Terry Swauger

AGE: 48


OCCUPATION: Niles prosecutor and law director