The Creation of the Opioid Intervention Court

By Christina van Vonno, CFCC Student Fellow (2019-2020)

Since 2017, more than 70,200 Americans died from a drug overdose, and more than two-thirds of these deaths involved opioids. Most people, when seeing these statistics, do not stop and realize that these individuals were fathers, mothers, brothers, or sisters, leaving behind loved ones who have to live with the tragedy of losing someone dear to them. When I applied to law school, my essay contained one future goal — to help others who cannot help themselves. Alarmed by these statistics, I sought a way in which the legal community could help lower opioid related deaths.

From my research I found that most opioid related deaths involved individuals who had (1) been involved in the court system or (2) were currently involved in the system. To my surprise, I saw little to no guidance created by the legal community to address this issue. As lawyers, it is our job to help those who cannot help themselves, and as a legal community we are failing to protect those in need by not implementing a court model to attempt to save these individuals.

In 2017, Buffalo, New York, opened the first opioid intervention court. The court’s goal was to save lives by offering immediate linkages for court participants to evidence-based treatment and intensive supervision and support. The court sought to identify the risks of opioids at the initial court date, rather than later in the process when it is too late. The court model consists of “essential elements,” required to keep the program moving effectively.

These elements include:

1. Broad legal eligibility

2. Immediate screening for risk of overdose

3. Informed consent after consultation with defense counsel

4. Suspension of prosecution or expedited plea

5. Rapid clinical assessment and treatment engagement

6. Recovery support services

7. Frequent judicial supervision and compliance monitoring

8. Intensive case management

9. Program completion and continuing care

10. Performance evaluation and program improvement.

Today, four other jurisdictions have created opioid intervention courts. Although this is still a small number, it is a start. These courts follow a similar model and have similar goals. If successfully implemented, the elements stated above will give rise to an effective, therapeutic court model in an opioid intervention court. With the rise in opioid usage, the need for these courts is NOW. As a legal community, judges, lawyers, laypersons, clients, victims, defendants, etc., all must work together toward a common goal to end the crisis before it goes beyond the point of no return. Lives matter.

By implementing these courts, preventive measures are taken to save lives. “You are never too lost to be saved.”


5 thoughts on “The Creation of the Opioid Intervention Court

  1. This post is insightful and eye opening. In the span of two years 70,200 died from opiod overdoses! That number is alarming! I agree with you. The legal community and the community at large must work together to find solutions to this problem. That number represents, as you said, families and loved ones who are left to grieve a loss that in many ways could have been prevented. Those families and communities deserve better.

    • I appreciate the data and information provided in your analysis. A childhood friend of mine passed away due to an opioid overdose. I too believe that as future lawyers we are responsible in the investment into the therapeutic court model, and to further the notion of comprehensive practicing versus reactive practicing. Hopefully over time, more therapeutic court models can be established.

      • Thank you for your comment and sharing about your childhood friend that passed, I am sorry for your loss. I believe with the spreading of awareness a more therapeutic court model can be established over time. As a legal community we owe it to individuals who lost their lives, like your friend, to implement this difference.

  2. Very informative post. So many people have been negatively impacted by the opiod crisis. I agree that there is an opportunity here for lawyers and the judicial system to help provide solutions to the problem. One thing that is of interest to me is the regulations for treatment centers. This is because a close friend of mine lost his brother to an opioid overdose while his brother was in the care at an in-patient rehab. The entire family was devastated by the loss but even more disturbed by the fact that such a thing could occur while he was supposed to be under supervised care. I think another way lawyers can help could be to ensure that treatment facilities are held to the proper standards and are actually providing the services that they are receiving state, federal, and private money to carry out.

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