Summit County Adult Probation Department is creating a unit it believes will address the needs of drug-dependent offenders who abuse heroin or opiate-based prescription drugs.

The goal is to keep drug offenders out of state prisons.

Summit County Council has approved an initial grant from the state for $200,000 as part of an incentive program to help find county-based treatment services as alternatives to incarceration.

“The initial grant money will be used to pay for the salary of the officers in the new unit,” said Andrew Bauer, the court executive officer of Common Pleas Court. He said additional grant money will be based on Summit’s ability to reduce its average number of felony convictions.

Money would be awarded back to Summit if the county cuts the number of offenders in the state prison system.

Funding comes through the SMART Ohio Pilot Funding Grant from the state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. The program was introduced this year.

Michael Rick, director of Adult Probation Offender Services for the county, wrote the grant application. He said the probation department plans to assign two probation officers to the unit.

Initial money also would be used for drug screenings, he said.

The Adult Probation Department has 48 full-time probation officers handling a caseload of about 4,000 people on probation for various offenses.

Summit County has the potential to earn up to a total of $600,000 if results show a decrease in the number of drug-dependent, low-risk felony offenders being sent to prison.

“That means an additional $400,000 in incentive money,” Rick said. “We would get $5,500 for every nonviolent offender below the quarterly average. The baseline average the state came up with is 79 offenders, so every three months the state will look at each Felony 4 and Felony 5 nonviolent offender that Summit County Common Pleas Court sends to prison and pay for each prisoner below 79, up to $400,000.”

Rick explained that if “Summit County had 69 for the quarter, that would be 10 below the 79, and we would receive $55,000. If the county had 78, one under the average, the county would receive $5,500. If the number is not below 79, the county receives nothing.”

He said 79 was determined as the average number of felons Summit County Common Pleas Court sent to prison for nonviolent drug offenses each quarter in fiscal year 2012-2013.

Rick said only low- or moderate-risk offenders, primarily those committing fourth- or fifth-degree felonies — would qualify. The key is all the offenses have to be nonviolent.

The maximum penalty for a fourth-degree felony is 18 months in prison and up to a year for a fifth-degree felony.

“An example of a low-risk offender would be someone with no prior record, has a job but doesn’t appear to have a lot of issues, just that they are opiate-dependent and charged with possession of drugs,” Rick said. “A moderate user could be someone who also has a nonviolent offense, such as possession of heroin, without an extensive prior record. The person might have a low-paying job and not much education who is making poor decisions on who they hang around.”

Rick said the number of opiate-dependent people is growing, and that’s the main reason for the grant. He called it an epidemic across Ohio and the nation.

“We would take the incentive money and put it back into the unit we created,” Rick said. “We would use it to get the offenders on probation into counseling or treatment programs.”

He said Summit County is rich with treatment programs, such as the Community Health Center, the Oriana House and UMADAOP, (Akron Urban Minority Alcoholism Drug Abuse Outreach Program Inc.), and they work well with all types of chemical dependencies.

Marilyn Miller can be reached at 330-996-3098 or mmiller@thebeaconjournal.com.