Opioid Court Aims To Prevent Overdose By Offering Treatment

By Kelly Burch 12/03/18

The Rochester-based opioid court offers treatment instead of jail time for minor drug-related offenses.

woman testifying in opioid court

A new court program in Rochester, New York aims to save lives by connecting people with opioid use disorder with treatment immediately, lessening their risk of overdose after spending a brief amount of time detoxing in jail. 

"Their tolerance goes down from their short stay in the jail, and that's when they use again and fatalities occur," Monroe County Court Judge John DeMarco, who will oversee the new program, told WHAM.

Rochester helped lead the national push for drug courts, which offer treatment instead of jail time for minor drug-related offenses. However, the drug court program in Monroe County has a months-long waiting list. Officials noticed that people with opioid use disorder weren’t getting the chance to participate in the program because they often relapsed after being released from jail following their arraignment. 

To help prevent overdoses, the new program, called Opioid Stabilization Part (OSP), will evaluate people at the time of their arrest and help connect them with immediate treatment. opioid court — as it’s already being called — is meant to serve the people who are most at-risk for overdoses.

"We have their attention. Having their attention creates maybe the only opportunity that those folks have to commit to get this thing turned around," DeMarco said. 

As part of the program, people showing signs of opioid use will be screened at Monroe County Jail the day of their arrest. Those who screen into the program will have their criminal cases put on hold. Instead of waiting for arraignment and being released on bail — oftentimes to return to the community to get high — participants will quickly be seen by a special judge and enrolled into treatment. From there, participants need to check in with the judge daily in person, if they are in an intensive out-patient program. 

People who do not have insurance will be able to access treatment thanks to a $1.8 million federal grant for the program. 

Law enforcement said that the people who will use opioid court are often more of a danger to themselves than to others. 

"We recognize they're at high risk," said Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter. "That's exactly what we're trying to we[a]n out of the jail and put them where they belong, into a bed and treatment program.”

District Attorney Sandra Doorley said the people in opioid court do not represent a danger to the community. In fact, she said that these people would normally be released from jail, just with less supervision than the opioid court program will provide. 

"They're usually given bail, so they're released (into the community) anyway," Doorley said. "At this point we're not allowing violent felons to get into the program."

A similar program that launched in Buffalo, New York last year has not lost a single participant to overdose. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.