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New Syracuse Opioid Intervention Court Aims to Help Addicts, Not Punish Them

Scott Willis

At 2:30 Thursday afternoon, the first three defendants appeared before a judge in what amounts to a new emergency court aimed at quickly helping those addicted to opioids.   The focus  of the Syracuse Opioid Intervention Court is on treatment rather than sending people to prison.  

The number of opioid-related overdose deaths in Onondaga County might be dropping slightly, but officials say that’s probably due to the increased use of narcan to reverse overdoses.  That could be seen as good news, but District Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick says they’ve seen all too often that it doesn’t address the core problem of addiction.

"I've talked to a lot of cops who've saved kids with Narcan, only to find two weeks, three weeks, four weeks later, that the kid is dead.  There's nothing more disheartening than that.  We have to do something about it."

So, now there’s Syracuse Opioid intervention court, created by the state and county.  Defendants will be screened in the morning by the DA’s office, with help of staff from area treatment centers.  By 2:30, they’ll be in front of City Court Judge Rory McMahon, who volunteered to take on the cases.  He says the key is following up with addicts every day for 30 to 90 days, a window of time when so many lives are lost to relapse and overdose.

"This is get them in, get them a script [for anti-addiction prescription medication] right away, get them thearapy, get them hooked up with a program, and have them meet me every day to tell me how they're doing.  They're going to tell me, not their attorney.  This is between me and them a lot of the time.  Nothing is recorded, so nothing they say will be held against them."

Credit City of Syracuse Flickr
City Court Judge Rory McMahon can identify with opioid addicts. His younger cousin died from an opioid overdose.

Rehabilitation therapists are also in the courtroom.  McMahon says the idea is to stabilize addicts.

"It's not about motions, it's not about suppression.  It's not about the criminal justice system.  We're suspending all of that.  It's about focusing on them."    

DA Fitzpatrick says only non-violent offenders are eligible, say someone who commits petty larceny to feed their habit, recognizes their problem, goes through the new court, gets treatment, sobers up, and returns to society with  clean record.

"A record can be a very stigmatizing thing.  It's self-defeating.  I don't need statistics to justify my existence.  I don't need criminal convictions for non-violent offenders who then turn around and can't get jobs and commit more serious crimes.  So, it's a catch-22 that we want to avoid."

Fitzpatrick says, though, that they’re going into this knowing some addicts will fail.  The new court just aims to reduce those chances.  In Onondaga County, 43 people died of opioid overdoses in the first half of 2018; Fitzpatrick hopes the final number comes in at less than the 91 deaths in 2017.  In Buffalo, overdose deaths dropped by a third in the first year.  Syracuse is the state’s sixth opioid intervention court, and could eventually expand to all of Onondaga county.  Others are already coming online shortly Watertown, Utica, and Oswego.