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Syracuse's Opioid Intervention Court One Year Later: More Peaks Than Valleys

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It’s been a little over a year since an emergency court was set up in Onondaga County to treat those addicted to opioids.  WAER News checked in with the judge overseeing the cases to find out how it’s going.

It may not be in the headlines like it used to, but Syracuse City Court Judge Rory McMahon says the opioid epidemic is still destroying lives.  Opioid intervention court aims to change the trajectory.

"We get letters and cards from people thanking us for saving their daughter, their husband, or their father.  It's so uplifting.  There are sad days, too....the peaks and the valleys of this court are miles apart."

The intensive, comprehensive effort aims to stabilize non-violent addicts, whom McMahon sees every day for 30 to 90 days to monitor their progress.  Staff from treatment centers and rehabilitation therapists are also in the courtroom.  If they graduate, the walk out with a clean record.  McMahon says about 100 people have participated so far…30 are active, 26 are drug free, 9 have been transferred to other courts for additional services…those would be the peaks…

"In one case, a guy's wife came in and said  thank you for giving me my husband back because he was gone.  We had another woman who just got engaged, and has asked if I could perform the wedding.  Her fiance said we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for this court."

Then there are the valleys.  There are 18 active warrants, and others who succumbed to the grip of addiction.

"You see people doing great, great, great and then they just disappear.  We have lost a couple people to overdose.  That's very heartbreaking, especially when they're doing so well for so long, you don't even know what happens.  You get the information and you're just devastated."

Credit Scott Willis / WAER News
City Court Judge Rory McMahon at the news conference announcing the emergency opioid intervention court in January 2019.

McMahon says every case is different, but in one way, they’re the same…people using opioids to blunt physical or emotional pain and then getting addicted.   Many have a dual diagnosis with mental health, and the judge says beds can’t open fast enough.  There are other gaps, too, like housing.

"A lot of people don't like to go to the shelters because there could be triggers there.  They beg me not to go there.  One of our biggest issues is transportation.  How do we get people to court every day.  How do we get them to group every day.  How do we get them to group every day.  How do we get them their suboxone, their methodone every day."

Then there’s bail reform.  McMahon says since it took effect January first, many no longer have to be held in jail.  He says they may miss their chance at overcoming their addiction.

"When they're in jail, they seem to admit they have a problem.  I guess it would be finding your bottom quicker than when they're out.  We've seen a little drop off with bail reform of people wanting to come in and being idenfitied.  Whereas now, a lot of people are getting appearance tickets, and are still trying to hide from their problem."

McMahon says going it alone almost always doesn’t work.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at