Inside Venango County’s Problem Solving Court: A Look at How to Help High-Risk, High-Need Drug Users (Part 2)

Gavin Fish

Gavin Fish

Published March 15, 2023 12:00 pm

FRANKLIN, Pa. (EYT) — In the early afternoon of March 7, as I walked up the stairs in the back of the courthouse, I could hear what sounded like a party going on above me.

I reached the third floor, and sure enough, the lobby was filled with people. They were all smiles and were mostly doting on two men, each dressed in a traditional graduation cap and gown.

(Photo credit: sergeitokmakov / Pixabay)

Being naturally introverted and feeling a little out of place, I walked into the empty courtroom and said hello to a Deputy Sheriff who was inside waiting for court to begin. We chatted for a bit until the courtroom door opened again and everyone who was in the lobby filed in. They weren’t acting like they were about to attend a solemn or scary court proceeding. The smiles remained on their faces.

(Inside Venango County’s Problem-Solving Court: A Look at How to Help High-Risk, High-Need Drug Users — Part One)

The two men donning the graduation attire headed toward the jury box along with three others: a woman and two more men. All five sat down, appearing to take their place in a chair with which they’d become acquainted over a long period of time.

Assistant DA Peasley, after talking to me briefly, took his place at one of the counsel tables. At the other table, sat Michele Orlowski, Problem Solving Court Coordinator for Court Supervision Services. She was all smiles.

Seated next to me on the front row of the gallery bench was a woman in a grey polo named Tristin Deibert, also a Problem Solving Court Coordinator according to the County’s website. Around her waste she wore a law enforcement-style belt, complete with gun, extra mags, and handcuffs. I sensed that I wanted her on my side if things ever went sideways. She, too, was all smiles.

A few minutes later, the deputy called, “All rise!” and we were joined by Senior Judge Thomas M. Piccione.

Judge Piccione kind of reminds me of an older, smaller Jeff Goldblum. He has a kind face. He smiles. He has little quirks to his speech and manner that are just perfectly Jeff Goldblum. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out if he’s a jazz pianist or a collector of bespoke roller skates.

Kyle Peasley told me before the session began that this particular judge is a “senior judge,” what we laypeople call retired. But he loves the program and travels from county to county to preside over problem solving court. By the look of things, he enjoys himself.

The proceedings went like this: first, one of the men from the jury box was called by name and stood before the court next to a microphone. Michele asked him to address the two men who, I learned shortly after the session began, were graduating from the program that day. Specifically, she asked him to share his thoughts with the graduates. When he was done, Michele asked each of the graduates to share their thoughts with him. I’ve never attended an AA or NA meeting, but it felt like it was like that. These people had obviously been working together on their drug and alcohol-related issues that caused their criminal behavior. And I have to say, it was touching to witness.

After they shared their thoughts, Judge Piccione asked the man a few questions, then excused him to sit back down. The process repeated three times, one time for each of the three non-graduates.

Then, each of the graduates were called up next to the bench. They stood next to Michele, who addressed the entire courtroom, detailing the journey that these men had navigated over the previous two years or so. She talked about their triumphs. She talked about their setbacks. She praised them for their accomplishments, and chided them for their most challenging moments.

Here are a couple of things that I jotted down that I thought were impressive about the first graduate, a man named Sean:

  • He was in an in-patient rehab facility for 83 days during phase 1.
  • He landed a job and has kept it throughout his time in the program.
  • At first he lived with his parents, then moved into an apartment. He just purchased a home.
  • He had 38 court dates during the program, never missing one.
  • While in the program, his mom passed away. In his grief, he broke his sobriety, but quickly contacted Michele to tell her what he did, believing there would be a sanction, or consequence. He got back on track.
  • He never received a sanction the entire time he was in the program.

Here are a couple of things that I jotted down that I thought were impressive about the second graduate, a man named Adam:

  • Finding the program difficult at first, he left rehab after 34 days.
  • He struggled and received three sanctions while in the program: a demotion, a GPS monitor, and a roundtable meeting.
  • He credits the roundtable meeting with Michele and District Attorney White in turning his attitude around.
  • He stayed in the program for his family, worrying about “the apple and the tree.”
  • His father died while in the program. He remained sober.
  • He was screened 346 times. Was never tested positive.

Following Michele’s presentation of both graduates, she recommended to Judge Piccione that they graduate from the program. Following each recommendation, Judge Piccione exclaimed, “Recommendation accepted.”

Each graduate received a framed certificate of completion and had their photos taken with Michele and Judge Piccione.

The Future of Problem Solving Court

Problem Solving Court was started in Venango County in 2016. The program originally had room for 25 participants. By my count, there are now five: the three in court who didn’t graduate yet, and two who were absent and were excused.

As Adam was getting getting ready to receive his certificate, he thanked Judge Piccione for “stepping up when Judge Lobaugh had to leave.” Adam’s wife told the court, “Problem Solving Court saved him and our family.”

Is the future of Problem Solving Court in jeopardy? If you ask Kyle Peasley, he says no. The DA’s office, he states emphatically, will always support the program.

I left problem solving court feeling like I’d just been in church. I felt uplifted, strengthened, and honored to have been there. And I was just a casual observer. I haven’t been witness to any of the hard work: the ups and downs, the successes and failures. But I hope the program can grow from its current humble state (which makes a huge difference in the lives of its few participants) into a juggernaut, whatever that may look like here in Venango County.

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(Inside Venango County’s Problem-Solving Court: A Look at How to Help High-Risk, High-Need Drug Users — Part One

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