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Nation's first opioid court opens, goal is keeping users alive

The ordinary drug treatment courts aren't up to dealing with the opioid addiction crisis. Officials in Buffalo, New York, which has just opened the nation's first opioid treatment court, say that more drastic measures are needed if the intervention is to be successful at its most basic level: keeping the defendant alive.

Most drug courts emerged in the 1980s and early 1990s in response to crack cocaine. The idea is to provide what's really needed -- drug treatment -- to people who aren't career criminals but got involved in drugs. Defendants may be first-time arrestees for drug possession, or they may have been charged for crimes they committed as a result of their drug addiction. Those charges are dropped if the defendant successfully completes drug treatment.

The trouble is, drug courts typically don't see defendants until after their arraignment, and in many cases until after they've been released on bail or bond. Sometimes, that's far too late.

'Thinking outside the box' to save innocent lives

Buffalo experienced 300 deaths from opioid overdose in 2016. That was more than double the 127 deaths two years earlier. Among those deaths was a young woman who had just made a first appearance at drug court. She didn't make the second.

Many people who become addicted to opioids became hooked after taking prescription medications for legitimate illnesses.

"We have an epidemic on our hands. ... We've got to start thinking outside the box here," the local district attorney told the Associated Press. "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."

On May 1, a $300,000 grant from the Justice Department allowed them to open the opioid drug court to 200 people this year. It is meant as a model program for other cities to replicate.

Unlike drug court, which is often scheduled days after an arrest, opioid drug court opens up to defendants within hours.

In New York, drug court requires checking in with a judge once a week. Opioid drug court will require it once a day for 30 days. It will also require an 8 p.m. curfew. Total detoxification is required, and outpatient counseling and case management is provided.

The strict requirements aren't meant to be punitive; they're meant to ensure that all of the addicts are still alive at the end of each day.

Justice must be tempered with mercy, an opioid drug court judge explains. "We're just trying to save their life at this point and to stabilize them, get them back on track."

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