Nation's First Opiate Intervention Court Has Promising Start

By Paul Gaita 07/12/17

A major increase in the number of opioid-related overdoses led to the formation of the New York-based court.

Judge Craig Hannah
Judge Craig Hannah will preside over the Opiate Intervention Court Photo via YouTube

In an attempt to stem the rising tide of opioid-related deaths in New York's Erie County, the city of Buffalo—which serves as the county seat—has implemented an Opiate Crisis Intervention Court to direct individuals with opioid addictions to treatment within hours of their arrest instead of sentencing them to jail.

The court, which is the first of its kind in the United States, offers a more strictly regimented set of requirements than traditional drug courts, including treatment, drug tests and 30 days of face-to-face meetings with a judge—all with the intention of giving participants a greater opportunity to not only achieve sobriety but stay alive in the face of overwhelming odds of fatality.

The court's success rate—none of the 80 participants have overdosed since the program was launched on May 1—may help to bolster similar efforts currently under review in eight states.

The Buffalo court—which was funded by a three-year, $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice—was formed in response to a significant increase in the number of deaths from opioid overdose in the city, which rose from 127 in 2014 to 300 in 2016. "We have an epidemic on our hands," said Erie County District Attorney John Flynn. "We lose a life, on average, every day because of this problem."

Incarceration for individuals with substance addiction issues had proven not only ineffective in stemming the death rate, but also imposed an expensive tax penalty on residents.

The crisis intervention court requires participants to adhere to a strict and often demanding schedule of treatment, counseling and court appearances. The grant also funds coordinators and case managers from the University of Buffalo Family Medicine to provide wellness checks and transportation, while insurance is billed for treatment.

Ron Woods, a 36-year-old with an addiction to painkillers, entered the program in mid-May after being arrested on drug charges. He is required to attend daily outpatient counseling, submit to drug testing and nightly 8 p.m. curfews, and meet once a day with City Court Judge Craig Hannah for 30 consecutive days. Most drug treatment courts require participants to appear before a judge once a week or even once a month.

Woods admits that the face-to-face meetings with Hannah are a challenge: "[It's] like being beat up and being asked to get in the ring again," he said. But he also admits that the program provided him with something else: hope. "This court makes it amazingly easy," he noted. "For the first time, I have an optimistic outlook and I wanted to get clean."

The court's success rate is being keenly observed by other states. In April, the National Governors Association announced that eight states—including Alaska, Kansas, Minnesota and New Jersey—will look into new means of treatment within their criminal justice systems.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.