After three defendants fatally overdosed in a single week last year, it became clear that Buffalo’s drug treatment court was no match for the heroin and painkiller crisis. The city is experimenting with the nation’s first opioid crisis intervention court. It can get users into treatment within hours of arrest instead of days, requires them to check in with a judge every day for a month instead of once a week, and puts them on strict curfews, the Associated Press reports. Administering justice takes a back seat to the overarching goal of simply keeping defendants alive. “The idea behind it,” said director Jeffrey Smith, “is only about how many people are still breathing each day when we’re finished.” Funded with a three-year $300,000 U.S. Justice Department grant, the program began May 1 with the intent of treating 200 people in a year and providing a model that other heroin-wracked cities can replicate. As of last week, none of the 80 people who agreed to the program had overdosed, though about 10 warrants had been issued for missed appearances.
Buffalo-area health officials blamed 300 deaths on opioid overdoses in 2016, up from 127 two years earlier. “We have an epidemic on our hands. … We’ve got to start thinking outside the box here,” said Erie County District Attorney John Flynn. “And if that means coddling an individual who has a minor offense, who is not a career criminal, who’s got a serious drug problem, then I’m guilty of coddling.” Acceptance into opioid crisis court means detox, inpatient or outpatient care, 8 p.m. curfews, and at least 30 consecutive days of in-person meetings with the judge. Buffalo’s get-tough court is part of a nationwide push to use the criminal justice system to address the opioid crisis. In April, the National Governors Association announced that eight states — Alaska, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington — will together study how to expand treatment within the criminal justice system.