About a month ago, a new court opened in Otsego County.
Its focus? Helping those who enter the legal system and are addicted to opioids get treatment, with a goal of making them productive members of society.
That is the stated goal of the legal system in general. Sure, punishment is part of it, but rehabilitation of those who can be rehabilitated should be the priority.
The Opioid Court was created as part of the statewide effort by the state Unified Court System to address issues with opioids
It is an outgrowth of the county’s existing Drug Treatment Court, improving the treatment court model by focusing on early intervention and treatment, Otsego County Court Judge Brian Burns said. The court’s first session was Dec. 13.
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.
Thankfully the number of deaths in Otsego are down, and whether that means fewer are using or more are being saved by naloxone, the crisis if far from over.
The Opioid Court will accept 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.
It makes sense to focus on treatment first. Face it, sitting in a jail cell or being back on the street awaiting a court date does nothing for those who are addicted. If they don’t have the support they need to get treatment while awaiting an appearance in court, they would be more likely to use drugs again.
Participants in the program 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. All of these are done under the supervision of the court. Participants are subject to drug testing, a curfew and they also do community service, Burns said.
“Substance abuse disorders in general are more effectively addressed through a public health system, not the criminal justice system,” Burns said.
We know not everyone who enters the Opioid Court program will emerge rehabilitated, but as Burns said, addiction is more of a public health issue than a criminal justice one. Treating it as such should result in better outcomes.