The Wyoming County Court system works with a collaborative effort across multiple agencies to combat the opioid and heroin problem facing the county.
Working within a system of best practices, the Court, District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, the county jail, Spectrum Human Services, Department of Veteran Affairs, Literacy West NY Inc., and the Wyoming County Probation, Health, and Mental Health departments have developed a systematic approach for those who commit crimes relating to drug offenses.
The approach also serves as a starting point to help addicts “kick the habit” and give offenders the tools to reenter society as productive members of their communities.
“When the Treatment Court first began almost 14 years ago, participants addicted to opiates was a rarity,” said Wyoming County Judge Michael Mohun during this month’s Board of Supervisors meeting. “The court dealt with alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, designer drugs and non-opiate prescription pill abuse, primarily. Today, more than 70 percent of the participants are diagnosed as opiate dependent – primarily heroin.”
Formerly called Drug Court, Treatment Court not only handles those who have a drug problem, but also those with an alcohol or mental health issue. Other assistance involves aiding with health insurance – oftentimes a hurdle to gaining access to treatment – for outpatient or inpatient services.
“The idea behind changing the name is that we are handling not only people who have a drug problem but also alcohol and mental health issues,” said Wyoming County District Attorney Donald O’Geen. “We are also handling veterans who also have these problems but because they are veterans they have access to other services and we help them connect with those services. We also have people on our team who are experts (called navigators) with dealing with health insurance issues, which is a big hurdle to gaining access to treatment (either outpatient or inpatient). Also, by having this broader title we are open to other addictions or issues that may arise that were not usually part of the basic drug court model.”
Those who enter Treatment Court are held accountable for their actions via weekly court appearances, random home visits by the Probation Department, weekly drug testing, regular attendance and active participation in counseling, as well as maintaining or finding employment. Additionally, participants in the program are given an opportunity to reduce their criminal charges.
“It’s a diversion program,” O’Geen said. “Participants are not only given the opportunity for recovery, by also a reduction in sentences. Approximately 80 percent of the cases we’ve had, sentences were reduced.”
“The Treatment Court process has evolved into a unified system of care with an integrated cross-systems approach support by nontraditional community partnership,” Mohun said. “This unique team offers a wide open door of hope for each individual qualifying for the program.”
Prior to being accepted into the program, candidates are interviewed and assessed by James Messe, the Treatment Court coordinator. He establishes the necessary level of treatment for each individual and assesses what entitlements they have or may need.
Additionally, he secures in-patient treatment for those who are unable to remain in the community.
According to officials, probation is the key. For the program to work, it works in thirds – want, force, or hiting rock bottom.
“The program works because a person like Gene (Traxler) is on participants to help them gain employment, structure and get back on the right track.”
Traxler, a senior probation officer with the county Probation Department, has been working with the program since its inception in 2003. His focus is to supervise each and every Treatment Court participant.
“In treatment, it’s also a rule of thirds,” Traxler said. “A third of the people that start never relapse. A third of the people relapse a couple of times, and a third are chronic relapses no matter what the consequences are. There is also positive peer pressure in the program to succeed.”
Drug testing of each participant is both random and scheduled. These tests ensure sobriety, officials say. However, testing is just one portion of the multifaceted approach. Contact with treatment agencies, family members, employers, and other service providers verify attendance, compliance, and employment.
Additionally, if a participant violates the conditions of the program, they are “sanctioned” and sentenced to a week in jail. Once the week is up, the person then may be eligible to continue with the program – with the caveat that the participant reenters the program as if starting from the beginning. However, there are only so many chances a person is given. If a participant continues to violate the terms of the program, they are removed from the program, charged with their original crime and sentenced accordingly.
In addition to the Treatment Court program, medical services within the jail are equally important. The jail medical services works collaboratively with the treatment team to address every participant that is in Treatment Court. The jail nurse, either Cheryl Glaus R.N. or Laura Dutton R. N., attends the weekly meetings to identify participants who may exhibit withdrawal concerns, medical or mental health issues, and their need to continue taking medications while incarcerated.
“It is estimated that 20 percent of inmates in jail and 15 percent of inmates in state prisons have a serious mental illness,” Mohun said.
Officials say mentally ill inmates are often jail management problems and are more likely to contemplate suicide. Those in Wyoming County that work with inmates regularly agree that mentally ill inmates have increased in the jail in the last several years. However, the regular, on-site presence of a mental health professional providing mental health services to inmates decreases management problems and safety issues.
Mitchell Kibler, of Spectrum Human Services, provides the outpatient mental health and chemical dependency treatment services to Treatment Court participants. Part of the treatment is group and individual therapy sessions, as well as medication assisted treatment for opiate addiction. Two such medications used included Suboxone and Vivitrol.
Suboxone combines buprenorphine, an opiate, with naloxone, an opiate blocker. This daily oral medication requires strict testing and physician supervision. Vivitrol is purely an opiate blocker and given once a month by injection. These medications are used in conjunction with either inpatient or outpatient treatment.
The county’s Mental Health Clinic provides outpatient mental health services which focus on co-occurring disorders.
Literacy West works with individuals in earning a high school equivalency diploma, should they need one, as well as offering work readiness classes and career coaching.
The Department of Veterans Affairs works with veterans to assess eligibility for services through the Veterans Administration (VA). Efforts are then coordinated to determine the appropriate level of care after diagnosis as well as treatment at the various VA facilities located in Batavia, Buffalo, Bath and Canandaigua.
“Whether the primary problem is mental health or addiction, the treatment team utilizes weekly meetings to review the participant’s status,” Mohun said. “The Court is in tune with the need for timely and efficient screening and assessment. This helps to identify all challenged areas and to link them with the necessary treatment modalities.
“The Treatment Court offers an opportunity to link treatment, vocational training, supportive living, educational needs, and employment opportunities while working toward goals of hope and recovery and a chance to break the vicious cyclical nature of an addict involved in the criminal justice system.”
According to Mohun, of the 57 graduates between 2011 and 2015, 12 (22 percent) had been rearrested since graduation – 44 (78 percent) were not. Of the 12 who were rearrested: four were for drug-related offenses; one was for an alcohol-related offense; two were rearrested for theft or property crimes; one for a domestic-violence-related crime, and four were for “other” charges.
Of the 16 who graduated from Treatment Court in 2016, only one has been rearrested for aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle (no drugs were involved.)
“The mug shots are a telling sign,” Traxler said. “Once they are clean, they are no longer living in a fog.”
The people who graduate that don’t go back into the program is a more telling sign, O’Geen says.
“It’s a tough program. Some just give up,” Traxler said.
“Graduation means something,” O’Geen said. “They earned it. They truly earned it. Success is a person maintaining sobriety and a law-abiding life for 12 successful months.”