As deaths stemming from opioid addiction on Long Island have reached unprecedented levels, law enforcement officials and health professionals have tried practically everything they can think of to stem the epidemic.
About 600 people died from drug overdoses on Long Island last year, not because society isn’t reacting, but because the problem is so intractable. Once hooked, addicts find that quitting heroin and prescription painkillers is terribly difficult with treatment, and practically impossible without it. And the criminal justice system is ill-equipped to deal with people whose nonviolent, low-level misdeeds, such as drug possession and petty theft, are criminal but whose primary victims are usually themselves, and whose deepest offense is often breaking the hearts of loved ones.
Now Suffolk County has rolled out one more program to try to make a difference. Nonviolent drug offenders with little or no criminal record are being offered addiction treatment that, if they participate for 90 days, would erase pending criminal charges. The program doesn’t replace Suffolk’s Drug Treatment Court, where offenders must enter a guilty plea before they can enter treatment, and must participate for 12 or 18 months.
Defense attorneys say Drug Treatment Court remains the right option for some addicts who stand accused; however, another choice is needed because many defendants won’t plead guilty, commit to lengthy programs or wait for the legal process to play out just to get to treatment. That’s particularly true when the jail sentences they would receive for a guilty plea are shorter than the rehabilitation time they’d have to commit to. And if they fail to successfully complete the diversion program, they are right back to facing those sentences.
Suffolk’s new program is called Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Education, or CARE. It is modeled on a similar initiative the Bronx district attorney’s office launched late last year. Nassau County also offers a variety of interventions that can lead to treatment rather than incarceration for addiction-related crimes.
All these efforts are worthy, but one of their most important goals at this point ought to be to compile data and detailed follow-up of participants to help show what works to keep people sober.
Is it intervention that erases charges and prevents convictions, or intervention that follows a guilty plea or conviction, when the punishment can be stayed and the record erased if treatment is completed? Does a 90-day commitment to a program work, or are 12 or 18 months needed? Which of the state-certified facilities have succeeded in getting people sober, keeping them sober and why? Is medically assisted treatment the answer, or 12-step programs, or a combination of the two? Does methadone work better than suboxone or Vivitrol? Do clients do better when they pick the type of treatment that resonates with them, or is that choosing irrelevant or even counterproductive?
Criminal justice and addiction treatment cost a lot of money, and addiction destroys a lot of lives. It’s good to create more options, but we need to find out what works, too, so we can go from trying everything to doing the right thing.