Niagara County is changing the way it handles court cases involving drug-addicted defendants.
Opioid Intervention Court is a 90-day program that offers defendants battling addiction medication-based treatment and counseling; the defendants are not prosecuted until they’ve completed the program.
The decision to launch the program, based in Niagara Falls City Court, came after judges and attorneys noticed defendants were dying from overdoses at an alarming rate.
This special court calendar is modeled off the same program in Buffalo, which kicked off in May 2017. At the time, it was the first Opioid Court in the nation.
“We’re getting people to try treatment. And that’s what O want them to do,” said Buffalo City Court Judge Craig Hannah, who oversees the Buffalo program.
In Buffalo, there’s been 400 participants so far; 2 have died of fatal overdoses.
Buffalo’s Opioid Court was made possible by a $300,000 federal grant, money designed to jump start the program. Those dollars will run out in about a year and a half, at which point individual courts will absorb the costs.
“It has been working. And that’s why were expanding the program,” said 8th Judicial District Administrative Judge, Paula Feroleto.
Opioid Court’s program director Jeff Smith helped implement the program in Niagara Falls. Niagara Falls’ Opioid Court is not getting any federal dollars, other than for training necessities.
So far, there are 15 participants.
“We provide participants of the program with immediate access to medication to combat the addiction,” said Judge James Faso, who will oversee Niagara Falls’ Opioid Court.
On top of medication-assisted treatment, participants will receive daily counseling provided with the help of a state grant.
This program is only to all non-violent defendants, on a volunteer basis.
“I’m surprised how important this model turned out to be,” Smith told News 4.
Since last May, opioid courts have opened in Florida, California, and New Mexico; all of them modeled after the program in Buffalo.
Niagara County leaders say the scourge of this epidemic makes public programs like this, a necessity.
“During the holidays I went to a wake of a friend of mine who lost their son,” Distinct Attorney for Niagara County Caroline Wojtaszek said.
“This is the second time that I personally have looked in the eyes of a mother of someone I know who had to bury their son because of an opioid addiction.”
While Erie County’s fatal overdose numbers are on the way down, Niagara County’s numbers are holding steady.
Wojtaszek said this program is far from a “get out of jail free card.”
Defendants will be prosecuted as normal, only after they complete the program.
“We make sure that these individuals are alive, and they’re safe and they’re on the road to recovery with their opioid addiction to then face the charges that they have,” she said.