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Choosing Compassion Over Incarceration: Some Drug Courts Successfully Employ a New Strategy for Solving the Opioid Crisis

By Christa Banister

If it’s truly insanity to try something the same way again and again and again and hope for a different result, it appears that a handful of drug courts are determined to buck that cliché with how they respond to the opioid crisis.

Recently declared a national public health emergency under federal law, opioid overdoses claim more than 91 American lives a day.1,2 Of course those statistics don’t even factor in the widespread effects of opioid addiction on families, communities, local government and the criminal justice system. According to a report from NPR, this is precisely why problem-solving courts in cities like Buffalo, New York, are approaching things a little differently.

Erie County, where Buffalo is located, is currently on pace for the highest rate of opioid-related deaths in its history. According to the local Department of Health, the county is averaging slightly more than one overdose death every day, which signaled the need for change.

While drug courts aren’t a brand-new concept (they originated in the 1980s when cocaine use was escalating), today’s opioid crisis could greatly benefit from their commitment to connecting addicted individuals with the help they need — and quickly. It’s no secret that people with addictions who are incarcerated routinely fall back into the patterns that got them in trouble in the first place once they’re released. That’s why leaders in Buffalo devised a strategic and decidedly compassionate approach.3

Timing Is Everything

Judge with gavelIn the traditional court system, it can take weeks, or even longer, for defendants to begin detox and/or inpatient treatment. This delay is particularly dangerous for someone addicted to heroin or fentanyl, which has proven to be even deadlier than other opioids.4 In contrast, Buffalo’s specialized opiate court allows a nonviolent offender to almost immediately focus on recovery.

By putting the criminal charges on the proverbial back burner, treatment can begin in a few hours — or the next morning at the latest — without all the usual legal hoops. Once the person has received help and become more stabilized, the criminal case is put on the calendar. Depending on how well treatment is going, there’s also an opportunity for the sentence to be reduced, or in select cases, dismissed altogether.

In Buffalo, City Court Judge Craig Hannah presides at Opiate Crisis Intervention, the first program of its kind where fast-tracking the recovery process is first priority. With an overarching goal of keeping people who are addicted to opiates “alive” and providing an alternative to jail, Hannah checks in on patients’ progress daily and celebrates their successes.3

Along with accountability, including weekday check-ins with Hannah, part of the court’s rigorous treatment includes regular and random drug testing, strict curfews and counseling, both one-on-one and in group settings. After completing a 30-day inpatient detox, there’s another month of outpatient treatment.

With relapses being fairly common during recovery, no one is kicked out of the program indefinitely for minor incidents. In fact, several participants start — and restart — the course. But Hannah doesn’t shy away from tough love and knows that getting on track requires patience and commitment because he’s been there. When he was young, Hannah struggled with cocaine dependency for a time.

And because the initiative in Buffalo is getting such great results — there have been no overdoses and only four out of roughly 140 people left treatment — county and city court officials from other US cities are inquiring about the program, according to Christopher Deutsch who works with the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.3

Moving Forward

The proliferation of treatment courts has helped cast a new light on substance abuse by viewing it as a public health issue rather than a moral failure. In an article they collaborated on for Time, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Van Jones, President of #cut50, who are advisors to Advocates for Opioid Recovery, are unified in the belief that how addiction issues are prosecuted needs to change. And that agreement is coming from two people who are often on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Citing the opioid epidemic as “the greatest public health and public safety crisis facing this nation,” Gingrich and Jones agree that incarceration isn’t going to help win the war on drugs. This idea is encouraged by success stories like that of rural West Virginia native Chelsea Carter. She began abusing prescription drugs at age 12 and faced up to 20 years in prison in her early 20s when she was stealing to support an OxyContin addiction. Carter went to treatment court instead of prison and began to turn her life around.2

Through the help of the court, Carter earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and she is now working as a therapist at a West Virginia treatment center where every one of her clients is dealing with opiate addiction like Carter had in the past. Coincidentally, many of her patients are referred to her through treatment court programs like she was once part of.

There are currently more than 3,000 treatment courts in the US, which help roughly 150,000 people with addiction treatment — something both Gingrich and Jones hope will increase. As evidence has clearly shown, treatment courts have dramatically reduced the number of repeat offenders and family conflicts, not to mention an overall reduction of crime by up to 45 percent. These compassionate, strategic treatment options have led to people leaving their addiction behind permanently — a welcome dose of hope as opioid overdoses continue to dominate the headlines.2


1 Hirschfeld Davis, Julie. “Trump Declares Opioid Crisis a ‘National Emergency’ But Requests No Funding.” New York Times, October 26, 2017.

2 Gingrich, Newt and Van Jones. “Drug Courts Can Help Solve the Opioid Crisis.” Time, August 1, 2017.

3 Westervelt, Eric. “To Save Opioid Addicts, This Experimental Court Is Ditching the Delays.” NPR, October 5, 2017.

4 Bond, Allison. “Why Fentanyl Is Deadlier Than Heroin, in a Single Photo.” STAT, September 29, 2016.