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Editorial: Niagara Falls opioid court tries creative approach to helping addicts

Opioid addiction has become the scourge of the nation but, thankfully, society continues to find new ways to help its victims. Now, the court system has become a sanctuary of sorts for those genuinely looking for rescue, and they don’t have to be implicated in any wrongdoing.

The Niagara Falls Opioid Intervention Court recently opened with the goal of saving the lives of addicts. Those seeking its help can be in trouble with the law or simply wanting the chance to get better. This court is willing to help all who are addicted to opioids.

City Judge James J. Faso Jr., who presides at the court, described the intent to News staff reporter Thomas J. Prohaska. Someone who is not facing charges would be directed into a treatment program immediately, the same as addicts charged with nonviolent crimes. In order to facilitate this process, a treatment van parks in front of the courthouse every morning at 11 a.m.

Niagara County District Attorney Caroline A. Wojtaszek said that the court is not about violent criminals. “This court is about saving lives.” It’s an acknowledgement that addiction is a sickness, not a crime.

Drug courts have been around locally since 1996, but gaining entry to court-supervised drug treatment required pleading guilty to some crime. The restriction was unhelpful, if the goal was to deal with addiction. Why wait until someone commits a crime before helping them find appropriate care?

The Opioid Intervention Court treatment begins at arraignment. Prosecution, if it is required, is deferred. That changes the perception and the approach: It is recuperative rather than punitive. As Jeff Smith, project director for the 8th Judicial District, put it: “One hundred percent of the people in opioid court are innocent (in the eyes of the law).”

This is a sanctuary for opioid addicts who, in the course of addiction, may have gone down the wrong path. Those admitted enter a treatment program of roughly 90 days.

Buffalo City Judge Craig D. Hannah started an opioid court in May 2017, where it has had a measure of success. That court’s services were extended to all other Erie County residents in October, with local judges allowed to refer cases to court.

The Town of Amherst plans to open its own opiate court, possibly this month. Niagara Falls’ Faso began hearing a few opioid cases in late October. He told all other town and city judges in Niagara County that they could refer such defendants to him.

The Opioid Intervention Court offers a second chance and treatment needed for recovery. It’s a valuable new effort in confronting a local and national crisis.

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