A new court program in Watertown allows at-risk individuals to receive treatment for their addiction to opioids before being prosecuted.
The Opioid Intervention Court began a few days ago. It will meet three times each week, and City Court Judge Anthony M. Neddo is leading the new initiative.
In opioid courts throughout the state, defendants will be screened to determine their risk of overdose once they are arrested. Those with the highest risk will be recommended for the program and receive further assessment.
Defendants’ criminal cases are suspended while they are in the 90-day program. The opioid court works in conjunction with treatment providers; such groups are receiving state grants to enable them to expand their services. Those in the program must report to court every day to meet with the judge.
For the Opioid Intervention Court in Watertown, Credo Community Center received a $150,000 state grant. Credo will use the funds to hire two people to provide critical clinical and peer support services to defendants. Randi L. Forbes, Credo’s outreach and off-site coordinator, will appear in court Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays to assist participants.
Janet M. DiFiore, chief judge of the Court of Appeals and of the state of New York, began the Opioid Intervention Court program. The first such court opened in Buffalo in 2016. Syracuse City Court began its program in January.
This program has many benefits. The initial goal is to address the potential of drug overdose by ensuring participants receive immediate treatment. After the 90-day period, defendants may have their sentences reduced if they plead guilty.
Officials in the criminal justice system are performing a valuable service with specialized courts.
Beginning this program also underscores the need for city officials to proceed with plans to construct a second city courtroom. They have been under a state mandate since 2013 to have two full-time judges, each with their own court.
This process has dragged on since then at a snail’s pace. Members of the City Council finally approved a plan earlier this year to use space on the second floor of City Hall. But resistance continues.
Jeffrey M. Smith, a former councilman who’s running for mayor this year, has argued that the city should refuse to build a new courtroom. He doesn’t believe it’s necessary and that state officials failed to adhere to the proper procedure in determining if Watertown should go ahead with the plan.
Mr. Smith has a valid argument that the designated protocol wasn’t followed. There is a question about whether Watertown was actually required to designate a second full-time judge and, hence, make a second courtroom available. And state legislators did not involve representatives of the city as they should have when assessing this need.
But the state has the authority to settle this matter, and it’s decided that Watertown needs a second courtroom. It could hold back millions of dollars in vital funding if the city fails to comply.
And given the specialized courts that are being opened, additional space to handle these cases will be essential. Watertown will eventually have a drug court for veterans, so one courtroom won’t be enough.
These programs offer a better alternative to the way that many criminal cases are routinely handled. City officials must adequately prepare for how these programs will be implemented.