The first drug court of its kind in New York City may be part of the solution to the Bronx’s daunting drug overdose problem. In 2016, the Bronx had 308 documented overdose deaths – the most of any of the five boroughs – a toll that rivaled the number of murders in the entire city.
In an attempt to reduce such overdoses, a new pre-plea court in the borough offers nonviolent offenders the option of treatment in lieu of incarceration. Since December, more than 100 defendants charged with low-level drug possession have gone through the new Overdose Avoidance and Recovery Diversion Program, or OAR.
“It’s completely voluntary so people are not mandated to treatment at all,” said Criminal Court Judge Linda Poust-Lopez, one of the two judges who hear OAR cases. Poust-Lopez believes this encouraged treatment because it is more effective when individuals are receptive to intervention.
Once in the OAR program, the public-private partnership Bronx Community Solutions helps participants gain entry into various addiction treatment programs and offers job training, housing and other services. Participants have to prove “meaningful engagement” in order to complete the program and have their cases dismissed and sealed. According to Poust-Lopez, the program requires participants to demonstrate they have gotten started in a treatment program and a defendant is usually in the program for between three weeks and two months.
Poust-Lopez said, “I hope that it will help the Bronx in the long term by, first of all, recognizing that addiction is a medical and social problem more than it’s a criminal problem. And in recognizing that, more people will be open to getting treatment, and I think that we will save lives and save families.”
So far, 35 defendants have completed the OAR track. In the near future, the program may expand to include other offenses. The state also wants to create similar programs in the other boroughs.