Pubdate: Sun, 09 Jul 2017
Source: Providence Journal, The (RI)
Copyright: 2017 The Providence Journal Company
Author: Carolyn Thompson, Associated Press


BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - After three defendants fatally overdosed in a
single week last year, it became clear that Buffalo's ordinary drug
treatment court was no match for the heroin and painkiller crisis.

Now the city is experimenting with the nation's first opioid crisis
intervention court, which can get users into treatment within hours of
their arrest instead of days, requires them to check in with a judge
every day for a month instead of once a week, and puts them on strict
curfews. Administering justice takes a back seat to the overarching
goal of simply keeping defendants alive.

"The idea behind it," said court project director Jeffrey Smith, "is
only about how many people are still breathing each day when we're

Funded with a three-year $300,000 U.S. Justice Department grant, the
program began May 1 with the intent of treating 200 people in a year
and providing a model that other heroin-wracked cities can replicate.

Two months in, organizers are optimistic. As of late last week, none
of the 80 people who agreed to the program had overdosed, though about
10 warrants had been issued for missed appearances.

Buffalo-area health officials blamed 300 deaths on opioid overdoses in
2016, up from 127 two years earlier. That includes a young couple who
did not make it to their second drug court appearance last spring. The
woman's father arrived instead to tell the judge his daughter and her
boyfriend had died the night before.

"We have an epidemic on our hands. ... We've got to start thinking
outside the box here," said Erie County District Attorney John Flynn.
"And if that means coddling an individual who has a minor offense, who
is not a career criminal, who's got a serious drug problem, then I'm
guilty of coddling."

Regular drug treatment courts that emerged in response to crack
cocaine in the 1980s take people in after they've been arraigned and
in some cases released. The toll of opioids and profile of their
users, some of them hooked by legitimate prescriptions, called for
more drastic measures.

Acceptance into opioid crisis court means detox, inpatient or
outpatient care, 8 p.m. curfews, and at least 30 consecutive days of
in-person meetings with the judge. A typical drug treatment court
might require such appearances once a week or even once a month.

"This 30-day thing is like being beat up and being asked to get in the
ring again, and you're required to," 36-year-old Ron Woods said after
one of his daily face-to-face meetings with City Court Judge Craig
Hannah, who presides over the program.

Woods said his heroin use started with an addiction to painkillers
prescribed after cancer treatments that began when he was 21. He was
arrested on drug charges in mid-May and agreed to intervention with
the dual hope of kicking the opioids that have killed two dozen
friends and seeing the felony charges against him reduced or dismissed.

In addition to the Monday-through-Friday court dates, Woods attends
daily outpatient counseling, submits to drug testing, works at his
family paving business and, although they are not required, attends
Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

"This court makes it amazingly easy. Normally I'd be like ... 'This is
stupid,'" said Woods, who has been through programs before. "But for
the first time I have an optimistic outlook and I wanted to get clean."

Buffalo's get-tough court is part of a nationwide push to come up with
ways to use the criminal justice system to address the opioid crisis.
In April, the National Governors Association announced that eight
states - Alaska, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, North Carolina, New
Jersey, Virginia and Washington - will together study, among other
things, how to expand treatment within the criminal justice system.

The grant pays for the coordinator and case managers from UB Family
Medicine, a University at Buffalo medical practice, who enforce
curfews, do wellness checks and transport patients. Insurance is
billed for treatment.

Judge Hannah hasn't taken a day off since the program started,
determined to show participants he is as committed as they are.
Although he still carries a full City Court load, he meets unhurriedly
and one by one with the people in the opioid program during prolonged
sessions on the bench.

These are not interrogations about whether they've used drugs the
previous night; they are chats about the weather, the weekend and
work. Some have missed check-ins or otherwise slipped and are brought
before him in handcuffs after being picked up by law

"I don't want to die in the streets, especially with the fentanyl out
there," Sammy Delgado, one of the handcuffed defendants, said. After
his arrest for drug possession, Delgado left inpatient treatment after
six days but wants another chance.

Hannah, as much counselor and cheerleader as judge, told him: "You
have a lot of people pulling for you. We need you to pull for yourself."

Later, in his office, Hannah described his philosophy as tempering
justice with mercy. He said he's willing to overlook defendants'
occasional lies and attempts to fool him, "because we've got them now.
We're just trying to save their life at this point and to stabilize
them, get them back on track."
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