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.”