David M. Hoovler
Orange County District Attorney
One can’t open a newspaper, watch the news, or browse the Internet, without knowing that this County, and, indeed, this country, are in the grip of an opioid epidemic, an epidemic that has been raging for more than a decade, taking the lives of thousands. According to data that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in June 2019, there were approximately 47,600 opioid-related deaths in the United States in 2017, an average of over 130 deaths every day. Orange County alone, in 2019, experienced 96 deaths related to opioid overdoses. While, fortunately, Orange County’s numbers are down from the 119 opioid-related deaths reported in 2018, there were still 96 deaths too many last year, and there is still a lot of work to be done to reduce that number further.
So far, those of us in law enforcement have only been able to do so much to try and dry up the supply of opioids affecting our communities, through vigorous enforcement of the drug laws against drug dealers. Unfortunately, in the wake of recent misguided bail and discovery reforms, law enforcement’s hands have been further tied, and our ability to fight opioid dealing, and, consequently, opioid abuse, will suffer. The time is long overdue, therefore, for greater resources to be devoted to the treatment of those suffering from opioid abuse disorders.
Let’s let one thing be clear: Treatment avenues do exist. Medication-assisted treatment is among the proven modalities for dealing with opioid abuse. Treatment with buprenorphine, naltrexone, or methadone has been clinically shown to be effective for those suffering from opioid use disorders. And providers of medication-assisted treatment exist in Orange County. Organizations such as Catholic Charities and Cornerstone Family Healthcare, among others, offer medication-assisted treatment, for those who are lucky enough to be connected to their services.
The trick is to connect people suffering from opioid use disorders to those services. In this County, we have a system of approximately 35 police agencies, over 40 criminal courts, with approximately 70 judges sitting in those courts. That patchwork of agencies makes it inherently tough to coordinate any system of referring offenders to opioid treatment services. But there is some movement there, too. In my office, we have been exploring methods to connect to services potential defendants who are opioid users, either before or after charges are filed against them. That is, in part, a follow-up to our 2017 initiative to establish a prosecutor-led diversion program. In addition, programs like Hope Not Handcuffs, Hudson Valley, begun right here in Orange County by the Tri-County Community Partnership in Pine Bush, seek to connect opioid users to appropriate services, whether the users are charged with crime or not. Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, where police, rather than charging people with drug crimes, refer them to appropriate services, has been tried successfully in several jurisdictions in the country, including the Albany region.
So, in reality, all the dominoes are already on the table. What’s missing is a firm commitment from this County, and this State, to provide the necessary funding to properly place those dominoes and to make them fall the way they should. Funding must be provided to expand
existing treatment programs, and to establish new ones. Resources must be committed to provide staffing to facilitate referrals of charged or uncharged offenders to necessary drug treatment services.
If the recent criminal justice reforms are not to result in a worsening of the opioid epidemic, Orange County must invest in treatment programs and referral services, to bridge the gap between drug users, treatment, and the County’s fragmented court and law-enforcement structure. Without the allocation of additional resources like those, I’m afraid that we’ll never be able to fully get ourselves out from under the opioid epidemic.