SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Syracuse City Court is opening a new drug court today designed to get opioid addicts facing criminal charges into treatment as soon as possible.
The program is modeled after Buffalo’s 2-year-old opioid intervention court, the first of its kind in the nation.
Syracuse City Court Judge Rory McMahon, who is presiding over the new court, said the program’s goal is to save lives.
“Getting them to see one more sunset will be my goal every day,” said McMahon, who lost a cousin to a drug overdose two years ago.
The court will put treatment ahead of prosecution. Everyone arrested in the city will be screened for opioid use and referred to the court program if they are appropriate candidates who have been charged with misdemeanors or non-violent felonies. Criminal cases will be put on hold while defendants are in addiction treatment.
Opioids are a highly addictive class of drugs that include prescription painkillers like Oxycodone and illegal street drugs such as heroin and fentanyl. Syracuse and the rest of the nation have been in the grips of an opioid epidemic for several years.
Fatal opioid overdoses in Onondaga County have fallen over the past two years. Opioid overdose deaths peaked at 142 in 2016 then dropped to 91 in 2017, a 36 percent decline. There were another 43 overdose deaths in the first six months of 2018, according to the latest figures from the county health department.
Court officials said even though opioid overdose deaths have declined opioid drug use is still widespread.
“This is really out of control,” said Fifth Judicial District Chief Administrative Judge James Tormey.
Syracuse already has a drug court, but it’s not set up to get defendants into treatment rapidly. Court officials likened the existing drug court to a hospital and the new program to an emergency room. The new program will not replace Syracuse’s established drug court known as Syracuse Community Treatment Court. After they are stabilized, some opioid addicts may be referred to the Syracuse Community Treatment Court.
Other opioid courts are expected to open soon in Oswego, Watertown and Utica.
Syracuse is the sixth city in New York to open an opioid court. The others are in Buffalo, Rochester, Niagara County, Suffolk County and the Bronx.
During the Buffalo opioid court’s first 18 months, 432 people went through the program and two died of overdoses during that period, according to the Buffalo News.
The cost of Syracuse’s new opioid court program will initially be paid for out of the judiciary system’s budget, Tormey said. “Hopefully we will get grants and other money from the state as this unfolds,” he said.
While defendants are in opioid addiction treatment they will be required to go to court every day and meet with McMahon. He and a therapist will assess how the defendants are doing in treatment. People who successfully complete the program may get their sentences reduced.
McMahon asked to oversee the new program. He said his cousin who died of an overdose two years ago was a talented athlete who “couldn’t kick the habit no matter what he did.”
“Seeing the pain on his parents’ faces is something I will never forget,” McMahon said. “That’s why I am so energetic about this.”