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Opioid court opens for Niagara Falls addicts – whether they're charged with a crime or not

Opioid addicts in Niagara Falls have a new treatment option: Go to court.

They don't even have to be charged with a crime.

Niagara Falls' Opioid Intervention Court officially opened Wednesday, and the goal is to save the lives of addicts, whether they're charged with a crime or not.

"If someone were to walk in off the street, they'd see me that same day," said City Judge James J. Faso Jr., who presides at the court.

His court has no power to punish an uncharged addict for not obeying instructions.

An uncharged person would be directed into a treatment program immediately, just as the addicts charged with nonviolent crimes are, Faso said.

A treatment van parks in front of the courthouse every day at 11 a.m., Faso said.

"This court is not about violent criminals. This court is about saving lives," Niagara County District Attorney Caroline A. Wojtaszek said.

Drug courts have existed locally since 1996, but normally the price of admission to court-supervised drug treatment is a guilty plea to some crime.

In Opioid Intervention Court, treatment starts at arraignment, and prosecution comes later.

"One hundred percent of the people in opioid court are innocent (in the eyes of the law)," said Jeff Smith, project director for the 8th Judicial District.

In a roughly 90-day process, opioid addicts charged with nonviolent crimes go through drug treatment while the charges against them are placed on hold. Faso makes daily courtroom checkups on every opioid patient.

"I just want them to live until the next time I see them," he said.

Once they've been treated, the regular prosecution begins.

"I want to emphasize, the District Attorney's Office has to agree to allow a participant in the opioid court," Wojtaszek said. "We have carved out violent felony offenses that do not participate in this court. Other than that, everyone is still accountable for their actions. It's very important for the public to understand."

"I make it clear to them right from the very beginning, there are no promises being made, there's no deals that have already been made, there's no guarantees of anything other than we're going to try to keep you alive for another 24 hours until we see you again tomorrow," Faso said.

Prosecutors can take a defendant's experience in opioid treatment into account in working out plea deals.

In Buffalo, where City Judge Craig D. Hannah started opioid court in May 2017, 35 percent of defendants have received a dismissal, an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, or a conditional discharge.

Since the Buffalo court's founding, 377 defendants have taken part, with nearly half of them, 180, on the rolls right now. Only three of the 377 have died of overdoses, Smith said.

The Buffalo court's services were rolled out to all other Erie County residents in October, with local judges allowed to refer cases there.

The Town of Amherst plans to open its own opiate court as soon as this month.

In Niagara Falls, Faso started hearing a few opioid cases in late October. Saturday, at a judges' meeting, he told all other town and city judges in Niagara County that they could refer such defendants to him.

So far, there are 15 participants in Faso's court. That number is likely to grow in a county that had 430 officially reported drug overdoses and 44 deaths in 2018, according to Wojtaszek.

"I know that we will be saving lives in Niagara County," said Justice Paula L. Feroleto, chief administrative judge of the 8th Judicial District.

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