In a creative decision patterned on a record of forward-thinking approaches to serious social problems, Buffalo has created the nation’s first court focused on intervening in the lives of those addicted to opiates. It’s bound to be a valuable component in the life-and-death effort to combat a national crisis that is playing out daily in Western New York.
Like similar courts directed at helping veterans, the mentally ill and other addicts, the opiate court is designed to help people struggling with demons to find their way back to a normal life. Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn put the matter succinctly:
“Jail is not the answer. Will people be held accountable for their crimes? Yes. But they also deserve to be cared for and loved.”
That’s not language that Americans are trained to expect from prosecutors, but it’s the wise approach of Erie County’s chief law enforcement officer. Addiction is fundamentally a medical problem, albeit one with tangled and complicating tentacles.
The national crisis grows out of addictions caused by opioid painkillers, prescribed by doctors, often to people in severe, chronic pain. But those drugs, chemically similar to heroin, are fiercely addictive and once prescriptions run out, users often turn to the street-corner version, which is cheaper, readily available and – spiked with synthetic fentanyl – frequently lethal.
The need for the court is obvious from the number of people dying. The mortality rate from opioid addiction in Erie County is about one person per day. That’s a crisis – imagine one death per day from drunken driving – and it’s worse in other parts of the country.
Plainly, those who are directed to opiate court will present different levels of risk to the community. An addict who possesses heroin for his own use has committed a crime but presents no more than a latent threat to society. One who commits a crime to buy the drug is operating in a different sphere and should be required to atone for that crime.
But opiate court is designed to give those people a chance to wean themselves from the illness of addiction. And, importantly, those who administer the court understand that recovery can follow a tortured path.
The main goal, said Judge Robert T. Russell, who has overseen the city’s drug court for many years, is to keep people alive. Thus, there is no cap on the number of times people may be referred to the court. “As long as they are trying, we expect people to slip,” he said.
This first-in-the-nation court is in keeping with Western New York’s pattern of understanding that some crimes are traceable to influences that are more successfully handled when the iron fist is sheathed in a velvet glove. Thus, Buffalo also began the country’s first veterans court, designed to help those who served in the military to deal with whatever demons haunt their lives. A drug court and a mental health court take similar approaches, seeking to help more than to punish.
Critically, though, punishment remains a possibility. That is the iron first that, if it has the desired effect, helps keep defendants committed to their own recovery. But if a defendant succeeds in overcoming addiction, Flynn said, that could become a mitigating factor in how a case is ultimately resolved.
This is a creative and humane approach to dealing with the terrible consequences of opioid addiction. It is likely to help those who want the help. Doctors and therapists will also have crucial roles to play.
That said, though, the court does nothing to stem the tide of those who are drawn into addiction. That requires more attention by doctors, educators, drug companies, government and others. Unless those numbers decline, the opioid courts will be overwhelmed with cases and thousands more people will die.