Crisis Court: An Inside Look

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)- It’s an epidemic that’s plagued our community for years; our full jails and emergency rooms are proof of it.

The Opioid crisis has also reached our court rooms.

“Last year we were finding that participants in the drug court were dying suddenly due to overdose,” says Program Director for the 8th Judicial District, Jeff Smith.

In an effort to get ahead of these sudden deaths, Smith co-wrote a grant to request federal money to start a different type of court.

The $300,000 grant was approved, and on May 1 Buffalo’s Opioid Crisis Intervention Court opened its doors.

It’s the first of its kind in the country. It’s being overseen by Buffalo City Court Judge, Craig Hannah.

“The way drug courts were made is mostly it’s like a post-disposition court. This is a pre-disposition court, where the person will be transferred into our regular drug court at the conclusion of the case,” Judge Hannah explains.

The $300,000 must last three years, and in the grand scheme Smith says it’s not a lot of money, but it’s putting Buffalo on the map for future federal aid.

According to the Erie County Department of Health, in 2016, 301 people died from Opioid-related overdoses.

So far in 2017 there’s been 112 confirmed Opioid-related overdoes and 132 pending cases; we’re on track to surpass the number of fatal Opioid-related overdoses from last year.

These kind of numbers put a serious strain on the criminal justice system, among other agencies.

“After arraignment, before they could even move on to further proceedings that would allow them to participate in a drug court, they were overdosing,” Smith tells News 4.

Opioid Crisis Court acts as a first stop for non-violent offenders battling addiction; once they’re approved for the program by medical professionals and the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, their case takes a back seat to their sobriety.

“We have people in treatment within one to days of their arrest,” Judge Hannah says.

Judge Hannah oversees the program on top of his regular bench duties. Sometimes he feels more like a social worker than a judge, but he says he doesn’t mind that.

“Our main goal is save lives,” he tells News 4 in his chambers before Opioid Court begins.

So far, Hannah and his team have been successful in that goal; of the more than 100 people who have been involved in the program since it started, none have died of an overdose.

Hannah’s staff is small, only about eight people, which includes health professionals.

“I think eight people committed to benefiting the change in people’s lives are far greater assets than 80 people with no enthusiasm about it,” Hannah says.

Here’s how the program works:

  • When a defendant is arrested, they’re evaluated by medical professionals and the Erie County District Attorney’s Office to see if they quality for Opioid Crisis Intervention Court
  • Defendants who quality are then almost immediately taken through detox, and placed in an in-patient or out-patient program
  • They’re given strict curfews, and meet with the judge daily for at least 30 days
  • After completing their Opioid Court program, the defendants are processed into traditional drug court, where they face their charges

For most defendants in Hannah’s courtroom, many of whom have been there before, it’s far cry from a counselling center; being frank about what’s going on doesn’t always come easy.

David Scott is one of those defendants.

“I’ve been arrested over 120 times maybe,” he says standing outside Hannah’s courtroom.

Scott jumped at the chance to get into the program. For him, it represented a real shot at getting clean.

“It becomes a normal routine. We had a normal routines as addicts; waking up to get our next fix. And now you know, it’s a fix to save my life,” Scott says.

The topics of Scott’s daily conversations with Judge Hannah range, but he says they generally talk about how he’s feeling.

“How I’m handling my days and my emotions, and just the progress that I keep doing,” says Scott.

“It takes a couple appearances before they realize they can actually talk and trust me. because I tell them we play by Vegas rules on the on-set. You tell me what’s going on, and everything stays here and we get you to treatment,” Hannah says.

Treatment is overseen by medical professionals from local health agencies and UB’s School of Family Medicine.

“We have a lot of components in the program that make sure that we are doing everything we can to stop this individual from being a statistic on the obituary roles. I would much rather have them as a statistic on our roles in the criminal justice system,” Smith tells News 4.

Once defendants complete Opioid Crisis Court and move on to traditional drug court, they still need to check-in with medical professionals and counselors, just less often.

For this program to have a shot, Erie County District Attorney John Flynn had to agree to postpone prosecution for these select cases.

“The Opioid problem is a monster. And it is an epidemic that basically has forced us to think outside the box,” Flynn says.

The goal, aside from keeping defendants alive, is to bring other cities outside the box.

Smith says there’s pressure everyday to make this program a success, and fears that statistically, zero overdoses deaths will likely change.

“We want to change but we’re not ready to change a lot of the times. If you don’t want to change, you’re not going to appreciate the benefits of this program,” Scott says.

When News 4 first interviewed David Scott, he was 57 days sober.

The aspiring musician is now 83 days sober and counting.

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