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America's opioid crisis continues to devastate families and communities across this country. It is also taking a toll on first responders and the criminal justice system. One city decided to take a new approach. Buffalo, N.Y., has created the nation's first opioid intervention court to try to fast-track treatment for addicts who commit crimes. Now some are looking to Buffalo's experiment as a possible model across the country. NPR's Eric Westervelt paid a visit.
UNIDENTIFIED COURT CLERK: Caitlyn Stein - C.R. 6786617 - scheduled for a report.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: There's about 10 feet between Judge Craig Hannah's courtroom bench and the wooden podium where a defendant stands to be arraigned here in Buffalo City Court. But for 26-year-old Caitlyn Stein, it's been a long, tough 10 feet...
CRAIG HANNAH: This is your first day back. Good to see you.
CAITLYN STEIN: Good to see you.
HANNAH: We just have to do that before and after picture.
WESTERVELT: ...Ten feet where Stein began to walk back 10 years of crippling heroin addiction, burned bridges with family and friends and waves of lies and thievery to support her drug habit. Today is her first day back before Hannah after a month of inpatient treatment in Buffalo's new opioid intervention court. She shows the judge a folder full of certificates earned during her recovery.
HANNAH: Oh, you've also been a positive peer mentor.
HANNAH: How many days clean is this?
STEIN: Twenty-nine today.
HANNAH: Keep up the good work. That's awesome.
STEIN: I will.
WESTERVELT: This experimental opioid court is an iteration of the traditional drug court, where an addicted, usually nonviolent offender is channeled into recovery as an alternative to jail and a chance at a reduced sentence. But it can often take weeks or longer to get a defendant into a detox or inpatient treatment center. And with opioid addicts, that delay can prove fatal. But here, if the defendant wants to get clean, Judge Hannah immediately hits pause on the criminal charges to get the person into treatment as fast as possible.
HANNAH: Right from arraignment, we put the clock on hold. We turn off the court reporter. Everything's off the record, and we're talking about getting you help. And once we get you help and get you stabilized, we put the criminal case back on the calendar.
WESTERVELT: But back on the calendar of the city's long-established drug court, with a chance to get the criminal charges reduced or even dismissed. When Caitlyn Stein first appeared before Judge Hannah, she was in handcuffs, chains and an orange jumpsuit - rail thin, dark circles under her eyes, heroin track marks on her arms. Today she looks alert, dressed in jeans and a casual top. And she now gets to approach Judge Hannah's bench, to walk those 10 feet to talk to him face to face.
HANNAH: How do you feel?
STEIN: I feel awesome. I feel like me again.
HANNAH: You know you have to see me every day after you go to treatment?
WESTERVELT: In that moment, Hannah seems more like a friend than the black-robed judge who could order Stein or other opioid court defendants to jail if they bolt from treatment. The program includes random, regular drug testing. So Hannah knows fast if someone's using again. And participants are channeled into one-on-one and group counseling and other support services. There's also a nightly curfew. Defendants have to check in at 8 p.m. and ping their location to a court staffer.
And after 30 days of inpatient detox, participants enter a month of outpatient treatment. And every weekday at 11 a.m. during that treatment, every recovering addict has to check in with Judge Hannah to sit in court, look him in the eyes and just talk.
HANNAH: I just need you to be honest with me so I can help you.
WESTERVELT: A middle-aged man is called up for his daily check-in. He says he's heading off to group therapy and then a job fair.
HANNAH: You test is negative, so keep up the good work.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes.
HANNAH: And it looks like you're getting back on track.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes. I thank God for this at the end of the day - for you, the courts.
HANNAH: If you don't put eyes on them and have that face-to-face continual contact and also to reassure them that we're actually working and caring for them, I think a lot of people get lost, and they fall off in their recovery.
WESTERVELT: The necessity for an opioid intervention court underscores the severity of the nation's overdose and addiction crisis. According to preliminary CDC numbers, overall drug overdoses killed some 64,000 Americans from February 2016 to February of this year. It's estimated 6 in 10 of those deaths was caused by opioids. Here in Buffalo - Erie County, N.Y., is averaging an overdose death every day.
JOHN FLYNN: We couldn't wait three or four weeks until we got the individuals into a treatment program or plan...
WESTERVELT: John Flynn is Erie County's district attorney.
FLYNN: ...Because if they didn't get it right away, they were going back out on the streets, shooting up fentanyl and dying.
WESTERVELT: D.A. Flynn says he and other law enforcers here enthusiastically support the court. It's just dumb, he says, to keep arresting and jailing repeat offenders who are, first and foremost, addicts in need of help.
FLYNN: If an individual doesn't get the help they need, they are going to be a perpetual criminal. They're going to be committing petty larcenies every day. They are a revolving door within our criminal justice system, and the police don't want that.
WESTERVELT: The court is less than 6 months old, so it's too soon to draw any big conclusions. But so far, the numbers show that Buffalo may be on to something. Of the roughly 140 participants, only four have washed out so far. And no one in the program has died. Part of the opioid court's success so far might be the fact that Judge Hannah knows firsthand about addiction. In his youth, Hannah says, he struggled with cocaine. He's able to tell defendants, I've been there.
HANNAH: I know that you can have every intention on trying to stay clean. But when that demon calls at 2 o'clock in the morning and no one else is around, everyone slips up from time to time. You can't lock up an addiction because the addiction is still there.
WESTERVELT: In the court's hallway, recovering addict and criminal defendant Caitlyn Stein tells me if Judge Hannah hadn't given her a second chance, she'd likely be in prison or dead.
STEIN: I've always wanted to be clean, but I've never gone to rehab. I've been in jail a couple of times, but it's only been clean for a period of time. So this has completely changed everything for me.
WESTERVELT: You know, I was taken by your comment to the judge today, I feel like myself again. I mean, after 10 years, that must feel pretty good.
STEIN: Yeah, yeah. It feels good to, like, laugh - like, belly laugh. And I cry. But it's OK. Like, I'm OK with crying now, where before I was just a zombie, I guess, is the best way to put it. And I don't ever want to go back to that.
WESTERVELT: A few days into her outpatient treatment, a day after this interview, Stein failed to show up for her daily check-in with Judge Hannah. She bolted - again. A warrant's been issued for her arrest. And the next time Stein sees Hannah, she's likely to be in handcuffs, back behind that wooden podium 10 feet from his bench and, in the court's eyes, back to day one. Still, a court official told me, we'll be here for her when she wants to get sober.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Buffalo.
(SOUNDBITE OF SAXON SHORE'S "REPLACEMENT DRIVER")
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