County creates new court to handle opioid cases

Burns

Otsego County has launched a specialized court that addresses the unique challenges presented by opioid addiction.

It was created as part of the statewide effort by the state Unified Court System to address these issues, according to a media release from the state Unified Court System.

The new Opioid Court is an outgrowth of the county's already existing Drug Treatment Court, improving the treatment court model by focusing on early intervention and treatment, Otsego County Court Judge Brian Burns said. The new court's first session was Dec. 13, he said. 

According to the release, the court will accept both felony and misdemeanor cases from the Otsego County Court and any town or village court in the county. The court will also accept referrals from local attorneys, police agencies, first responders, probation officers and any other agencies working with at-risk opioid users, according to the release.

Traditional treatment court typically involves someone pleading guilty and being sentenced in treatment court, a process that can take weeks, Burns said.

"For someone with an opioid substance use disorder, they may not have weeks," Burns said. "We put the prosecution on hold and do everything we can to intervene and provide access to treatment immediately."

Burns said while he doesn't believe anyone has died waiting to get into treatment court, several drug court participants have died of overdoses while they're in the program. With the new court, treatment isn't conditional on the legal process happening first, he said.

"We don't want someone to overdose and die because of a slow legal process," Burns said.

Participants are immediately assessed for their needs, which includes a level of care determination, transportation to a treatment facility, housing assistance when they're discharged, employment assistance and help addressing mental health issues. Participants are subject to drug testing, a curfew and they also do community service, Burns said.

While overall, fewer people are dying of overdoses, it doesn't mean the crisis is over, he said.

"We still have people dying from opioid overdoses both in this county and across the state every day," Burns said. "The advantage of the opioid intervention court is it allows us to focus immediately on getting people into treatment."

The court is focused on opioids because of the highly lethal nature of heroin and fentanyl, Burns said. The court is modeled after others around the state, typically in more urban areas, Burns said. It could potentially expand and address other substance abuse issues. For now, things are being taken one step at a time, he said.

"Substance abuse disorders in general are more effectively addressed through a public health system, not the criminal justice system," Burns said. "This opioid intervention court is much closer to a public health response than a criminal justice response, so I think it would be effective if applied for people who suffer from any substance abuse disorder."

Shweta Karikehalli, staff writer, can be reached at skarikehalli@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7221. Follow her @DS_ShwetaK on Twitter.

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