For nearly three decades, drug courts across the U.S. have provided an effective alternative to jail, by diverting addicted, non-violent defendants into treatment and, ideally, recovery. Now, the city of Buffalo, N.Y., has developed the first opiate-specific drug court, which expedites addicts into “wraparound” treatment, before their cases are adjudicated by the court.
Designed to stop the revolving door of drug addiction and crime, the opiate court was launched on May 1, using a three year, $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.
With city court Judge Craig Hannah presiding, identifying addicts quickly and starting them on treatment – usually medication-assisted treatment – is a priority for the Buffalo program. At 7.30 a.m. each day, anyone arrested and jailed overnight is interviewed about their drug use.
They are asked three questions, Project Director Jeff Smith told the Guardian. “Have they ever used? Are they currently using? Have they have overdosed? If any question is answered in the affirmative, they are brought before the court.”
If they are willing, defendants can get into treatment within hours, rather than having to wait as long as three or four weeks to get into inpatient treatment or a detox center, as in a conventional drug court, Smith says. Their case is placed in abeyance while the court handles the defendant’s addiction issue.
“Right from arraignment, we put the clock on hold. We turn off the court reporter, everything’s off the record, and we’re talking about getting you help,” Hannah says. “And once we get you help and get you stabilized, we put the criminal case back on the calendar,” he told NPR news.
To make the program possible, the Buffalo DA’s office “needed a judge who would see these people right at arraignment and not wait for constitutional rights to be followed and try to intervene then and there on an individual use of opiates,” Erie County District Attorney John Flynn told the Guardian.
They found the right judge in Hannah. He has a special understanding of the disease of addiction, since he himself is a recovering cocaine and marijuana addict who has been clean for 17 years. Hannah says he tells defendants “the only difference between them and me is time.”
Close monitoring is another important feature of the Buffalo program, including random, regular drug testing and a nightly curfew. Defendants have to check in at 8 p.m. and “ping” their location to a court staffer. Participants are also directed into one-on-one and group counseling among other support services.
“Face time” is vital to hold each drug court defendant accountable, Judge Hannah told MPR. “If you don’t put eyes on them and have that face-to-face continual contact, and also to reassure them that we’re actually working and caring for them, I think a lot of people get lost and they fall off in their recovery,” he says.
After completing 30 days of detox, participants enter 30 days of outpatient treatment. While in treatment, every weekday at 11 a.m. every recovering addict has to check in with Hannah, for a one-to-one talk with the judge, in court. If a participant doesn’t show up at group therapy, misses curfew or commits some other infraction, it is addressed the next morning by the judge.
If an opiate court participant misses an appearance, the judge issues a warrant for their arrest.
Because relapse is common among addicts trying to get clean, the program gives participants who commit minor infractions multiple chances to start treatment over, if necessary. No one is permanently removed from the program, as long as they make a sincere effort to get back “inside the circle of trust,” as Judge Hannah puts it.
Early data indicates the program seems to be working. So far the numbers show that Buffalo may be on to something: Of the roughly 140 participants, only four had left the program early, as of August.
Buffalo’s program, in which criminal addicts are immediately assessed and referred for treatment within hours, is attracting national attention. “This fast-tracking (in Buffalo) is really unique and generating a lot of interest out there,” says Christopher Deutsch, a spokesman for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
Richard Baum, acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, recently visited the opioid court to find out if how the federal government might help bring the idea to other addiction-plagued cities across the country.