A 14-member task force composed of judges, attorneys and health officials have recommended not creating special state courts for defendants addicted to opioids. It instead recommended focusing on treatment plans already in place in Connecticut.
The task force, which released its 73-page report to the state Judiciary Committee on Jan. 1, opted against mirroring Buffalo, New York, which established the country’s first-ever opioid intervention court in May 2017. That court was funded, in part, by a three-year, $300,000 federal grant.
Task force members told the Connecticut Law Tribune Thursday they made recommendations based on cost and other options, such as the Treatment Pathway Program, already in place.
In addition, members said, the Buffalo example is a drain on resources.
“In Buffalo, people appear in court every single day, five days a week. It is quite a tremendous allocation of resources,” said Robert Devlin Jr., assistant administrative judge and a member of the task force. “Even the judge in Buffalo, who advocated it, said it’s a resource-intensive approach and a very expensive program.” In Buffalo, Devlin said, “They come to court everyday to monitor their adherence to their plan for overcoming drug addiction.” It’s not clear how much it costs Buffalo to operate its two drug courts, including one devoted solely to opioids.
Task force members said they believe the opioid crisis should be looked at as a public health concern, not a criminal justice issue.
“Opioids are a serious problem in our state,” Devlin said. “We are open to looking at this from the lens of public health. What are the public health resources?”
Task force member Timothy Fisher, dean and professor of law at the University of Connecticut School of Law, said, “Every court in Connecticut is an opioid court, to some degree. The best court, though, for many people suffering addiction is no court at all. Putting someone in jail does not address the addiction or the cure or the causes. It’s just ruining more lives a little bit more.”
The task force report has many recommendations. The No. 1 priority, the report said, is to expand the Treatment Pathway Program statewide. TPP was piloted in 2015 at Bridgeport Superior Court with a $100,000 grant from the Public Welfare Foundation.
The grant supported, among other things, a licensed clinical social worker who is housed in the courthouse. The TPP operates in Bridgeport, New London, Torrington and Waterbury. It costs $100,000 for the program in each location. More than 400 people have been served by TPP and those in the program are released from state custody to receive treatment. Expanding TPP, the task force notes, would cost $1.8 million and would take 12 months to roll out.
Other task force recommendations include providing funding to the Division of Public Defender Services for two additional social workers, and contracting for an additional 123 residential beds, at around $7 million, for defendants not eligible for TPP.
The TPP program, which is voluntary, has been a successful one, Chief Public Defender Christine Rapillo told the Connecticut Law Tribune.
“The best option is to get out of the court system and into a program, and the TPP is a good program,” Rapillo said. For those who are not eligible for TPP, Rapillo said, “Social workers from my office are in all 33 courthouses in the state. Those social workers will assess a client and figure out what they need for treatment. The social workers can then get people evaluated and target them into the right programs.”
Rapillo added: “We will not solve the problem by locking people up.”
According to the office of the chief medical examiner, more than 1,000 people in Connecticut died from accidental drug overdoses in 2017. The 2018 numbers are not yet available.