Scott VanDerKarr's new job

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly
Brad Koffel, left, and Scott VanDerKarr

The pioneering drug court judge is applying what he learned on the bench to a new kind of legal practice.

For nearly seven years,Scott VanDerKarr worked closely with heroin addicts as one of Ohio's first drug court judges, emphasizing treatment over penalties and earning rave reviews for his work. Now, VanDerKarr is attempting to break new ground again with a new kind of legal practice that caters to families desperate to help their addicted loved ones.

In January, VanDerKarr stepped down from the Franklin County Municipal Court bench to spread the word of the success of drug courts, consulting with other government leaders interested in establishing their own. He also joined Columbus criminal defense attorney Brad Koffel to form what they're calling a "preventative law" practice group, a first of its kind in Ohio, they say. "The skills I've learned with drug court, I'll apply that to preventative law," VanDerKarr says. "We're trying to save lives, and we're trying to make families whole again."

While drug courts work with addictsfacing legal trouble, the preventative law program caters to parents who find illegal drugs in their child's room, for instance, and don't know where to turn. VanDerKarr and Koffel aim to be a one-stop shop for those parents, a place to get counseling referrals for their child and themselves, legal help if a child's been chargedand advice on drug rehabilitation and other options.

Koffel sayscorporate attorneys practice preventative law when they advise clients how to manage risk and avoid lawsuits."I thought, 'Why don't I become a lawyer for the family, for mom and dad, and I can advise them on how to smartly get their son or daughter into treatment?'" he says. "We can define what they're facing. Then we can put together a plan. I've found that things work a lot smoother if you're working privately with the family and don't have to go through government agencies."

As a Franklin County Municipal Court judge for 20 years, VanDerKarr saw plenty of drug users and quickly recognized jail didn't solve all of their problems. In 2009, he started a drug court at the request of Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien, then a year later started one specifically for heroin addicts. Drug court judges meet with defendants weekly as a group to check on their progress. The program includes random drug tests, with jail potentially looming for those who don't succeed. About 70 percent graduate from the program.

O'Brien says the drug court has been "highly successful," both in saving lives by helping addicts get off drugs and reducing crimes connected to addiction.

In the preventative law program, VanDerKarr first learns the addict's history from a mom, dad or both. Is the child stealing to support the habit? Have the parents found drugs? Is violence involved? Then he assesses the situation, pulling in a licensed clinician if needed to develop a plan of attack. "You have to figure out how to get the child to cooperate," VanDerKarr says. "That might include tough love, giving them the option of cooperating or going to jail. The purpose is to get to the addicts before the criminal justice system gets to them."

If the addict won't enter treatment willingly-and most won't, Koffel says-the team might urge parents to turn their child into police for stealing. "Let's use jail as a deterrent," Koffel says.

Then, Koffel and VanDerKarr encourage the judge assigned to the addict's case to deny bail and get the addict into a court-ordered drug treatment program. "The idea is to stop them involuntarily from using," Koffel says. "I've seen enough deaths to be able to say that waiting for them to get treatment on their own leads to a funeral."

Both attorneys speak from experience: Each has lost young male relatives to heroin overdoses in the last two years. One was Koffel's nephew. "It cut him down, and I knew at that point, standing out in front of his apartment waiting for the coroner to show up and remove his body, that I [had to] do something," Koffel says.

Koffel says the law firm won't charge for the initial meeting with parents. After that, the cost would depend on the level of supervision and monitoring parents want, running from $2,500 to $7,500.

Charlie Stewart, 24, is a former heroin addict who successfully graduated from VanDerKarr's drug court. He now helps families in the preventative law program. "If not for drug court, there honestly is no telling where I'd be today," says Stewart of Hilliard. "It forces you to have a commitment to this long-term program that you're doing because it's keeping you out of jail."

The new practice group is a work in progress; Koffel and VanDerKarr admit the concept is difficult to explain and hope the model becomes clearer as they work with more clients. Eventually they want to add parent support groups and fundraising to help families pay for expenses associated with drug treatment. "I think this holistic approach will become more engrained in the system," VanDerKarr says. "I'd say half of criminal defense firms will be doing this in two decades."