News

Cumberland County launched first intervention court in the state

Written by Joshua Vaughn/The Sentinel | Jul 11, 2018 7:00 AM
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Newsrooms across the commonwealth have spent years documenting the opioid crisis in their own communities. But now, in the special project State of Emergency: Searching for Solutions to Pennsylvania's Opioids Crisis, we are marshalling resources to spotlight what Pennsylvanians are doing to try to reverse the soaring number of overdose deaths.

WITF is releasing more than 60 stories, videos and photos throughout July. This week, you will find stories about police intervention, courts and treatment.

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(Carlisle) -- In 2017, more than half of the people who died from a drug overdose in Cumberland County were actively involved in the criminal justice system, according to an analysis court and coroner's records conducted by The Sentinel.

Those numbers have risen sharply from just 20 percent of deaths in 2014, The Sentinel found.

This high crossover prompted Cumberland County to form a six-week, intensive opioid intervention court.

"The time from arrest to the time of eventual resolution of charges is very vulnerable and people were dying," said Cumberland County Common Pleas Judge Jessica Brewbaker, who runs the intervention court. "The point is to keep them alive. If you don't change things in their world, what are the chances they are going to change all on their own?"

When a person is charged with a crime, regardless of the charge, they are screened for admission into the court.

Participants must have a substance use disorder and test positive for an opiate, she explained. Entrance into the program is voluntary. However, once in, the program is mandatory.

This includes meeting every morning with Brewbaker and an 8 p.m. daily curfew. All participants must have a treatment plan and take part in some form of group therapy.

Participants are also subject to random drug tests. If a participant tests positive for opiates at any point during the program, they are sent directly to Cumberland County Prison for a few days.

Other sanctions like electronic monitoring are used if a participant tests positive for another substance or otherwise violates the program.

Nearly all of the participants receive some form of medication assisted treatment like Suboxone or Vivitrol.

"It's a leg up that helps them get through the most vulnerable periods and keep them alive until they can be in treatment and successful recovery," Brewbaker said. "There is no scientific reason why they shouldn't be on it."

The district attorney's office has a veto power if they believe someone is too much of a risk. Most of the people entering the program were not charged with drug possession or drug delivery, Brewbaker said.

Many of the participants face charges like theft, burglary or DUI.

Nearly 60 percent of the people who died in Cumberland County from a drug overdose in 2017 while actively involved in the criminal justice system were charged with DUI or theft, according to court records.

One of the biggest misconceptions is the program makes criminal charges go away or gives the defendant a favorable outcome.

"The benefit of the program is that they get immediate access to significant treatment for free. That's it," Brewbaker said. "So, if they are mature enough or they have a family supportive enough to say 'you have to do this' then we have all these services for them and all this accountability and all this team rooting for them and it's all for free. That's why they do it."

The court is the first in the state, second in the country and modeled after one in Buffalo, New York.

Published in Cumberland County, News

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