One group of defendants in Buffalo Judge Craig Hannah’s courtroom have volunteered to take part in an experiment where the primary goal is to save their lives. Arrested for crimes related to addiction, they are participants in what is believed to be the nation’s first opioid court, the New York Times reports. Unlike typical drug courts, which can end in punishment if defendants relapse, this one recognizes that failure is part of the recovery process. Its measure of success — preventing death — is arguably a low bar. Yet few initiatives have made much of a dent in an epidemic that is killing more people each year than car accidents do.
The criminal justice system may not be the ideal place to address addiction, but drug users there are a captive audience. The court, by linking with nonprofits, offers treatment for those who could not otherwise afford it. Court systems around the U.S. are watching Buffalo as a potential model. Participants are required to appear daily before Hannah, who himself was once addicted to drugs. The number of opioid overdose deaths, already high in 2015, more than doubled in 2016, to about 300. If defendants continue to use, they are returned to criminal court to face charges. If they agree to treatment but no beds are available, they have to wait. If participants complete the program — which generally means going 60 days without drugs — they have a good chance of having their charges reduced or dropped altogether. Since the project started last May, only one of its 92 participants has died from an overdose.