December 1, 2021

Vera: Drug court could help addicts, ease jail crowding

Jacob DeRochie/contributing photographer

Panelists address members of the Cortland County Legislature Wednesday night on the topic of pre-arrest diversion to help combat opioid abuse within the community.

Craig Hannah recalled one woman coming up to him with her newborn so he could be one of the first people to know she had reconnected with the child.

That woman had just went through addiction treatment through a drug court in Buffalo. Hannah, a city court judge, was the one who put her through it.

“You don’t know the difference that you make in someone’s life by just giving them a chance,” he said.

As Cortland County lawmakers continue to look at options regarding the county jail, its population and how to reduce that number, members of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee met Wednesday with Hannah and three other panelists to talk about pre-arrest diversion techniques and drug treatment court to help with the opioid issue seen in Cortland County and across the state.

State data as of November show a decrease in all opioid deaths in the county: 10 in the first six months of 2017 compared with three the first six months of 2018.

There was a total of 13 for all 2017; full 2018 figures were not available.

“When treatment courts were mentioned about 15 years ago to me, I thought ‘Oh no, more work for me to do, more people to supervise, more court appearances, is this going to amount to anything?’” said Legislator Kelly Preston (R-Homer), who worked as a clerk for Cortland City Court at that time. “Guess what, I found out that treatment courts work.”

Insha Rahman, a program director with the Vera Institute of Justice, conducted the panel discussion centered around treatment for opioid and other drug abuse.

“The reason why we’re here today is because we know that in all of New York state, and especially here in Cortland County, there’s a real need to have more response, more options to substance use and the opioid crisis,” Rahman said.

Cortland County offers a Vivitrol program in the jail to help treat drug addiction. The jail also offers in-service programs like peer counseling and job training.

Panelists included Hannah; Claudia Schultz, a public defender in the Buffalo drug court; Katharine Celentano with the Drug Policy Alliance; and Mark Thayer, director of Cortland County Mental Health.

The panelists spoke to about two dozen people.

Hannah said defendants are placed into drug treatment within hours of their arrests. Community partners are key, he added.

“They came to the table and told us they could cut the red tape,” he said. “You might of heard horror stories about people waiting six, eight weeks to get into a methadone program or suboxone program. Well, we had people knocking on our door saying ‘Your honor, we can get someone into a program overnight.’”

Around 450 people have gone through the drug treatment court in Buffalo, Hannah said. Of those, 280 are still active. Three died from overdose.

“So jail and jail and jail has not worked, it’s never going to,” Schultz said.

Using treatment and community resources is big in breaking people of addiction, Schultz said. “If you think you’re spending a lot of money to do this, you are,” she said. “But if you even think about comparing that to the money it takes to put these (people) through the criminal justice system over and over and over, you are going to be amazed at how much less you can spend.”

Panelists added that treatment could include methadone, buprenorphine — brand name Suboxone — and Vivitrol, which help treat drug addiction.

Thayer added that the county has a subcommittee of the Community Services Board, dubbed the Justice League, which aims at trying to divert people from the criminal justice system. “It started out as just an opportunity to get people, who provided services in the jail, together to learn more about what each other did,” he said. “It has really expanded to become an opportunity to learn from each other.”

One obstacle the county would have to look at overcoming would be the lack of transportation.

Hannah said the drug treatment court in Buffalo offers a mobile treatment van, which can travel to people’s homes to offer services.

Panelists also answered public questions:
• What types of criminal charges come through the drug treatment courts?

Schultz: “I would say most of it is exactly what you’d suspect. I have lots of clients charged with possession, drug possession. But I also have lots and lots of different things that accompany that. Thefts of all kinds. … There is nothing by category that we never turn down as long as people say this is my problem and yes I’m willing to abide by the rules of this court.”

• How long does someone stay in the program?

Hannah: “We don’t say they graduate, we say they advance. We treat their first 90 to 180 days, depending on their progress, as phase one of their recovery. And then they’ll graduate into phase two.”

Some of the people within the treatment go on to recovery and others may even be indicted depending on the original charges.

• What did Hannah do to secure extra funding and what can Cortland do?

Hannah: “I’m glad you asked that question, and Ms. Schultz will tell you I relied on my staff. We didn’t get one extra person, we didn’t get one extra dollar. We don’t take long lunches and we start early and leave late.”

• Is there anything in the end treatment program to help these people get employed?

Hannah: “We actually have an individual from our community college that’s a part of our treatment staff and we try to link them to there.”