Cumberland County will soon deploy a new tool it hopes will stem the rising tide of overdose deaths.
On Feb. 5, the county will begin an Opioid Intervention Court that has been spearheaded by Common Pleas Judge Jessica Brewbaker.
The program targets people entering the criminal justice system who have issues with substance use for placement into a six-week intensive treatment court and is not limited to people charged with drug offenses.
“We’ve just seen so many people dying,” Brewbaker said. “We’re just trying to keep them alive.”
Nearly half of the people who died of a drug overdose in 2016 had recent interaction with the criminal justice system, according to analysis of court records conducted by The Sentinel.
Ten people died of drug overdoses after being charged with a crime but before being sentenced. Several others died shortly after their case was disposed or while under supervision, The Sentinel found.
Brewbaker said the goal is target individuals very early on in the process. This will generally mean upon admission into Cumberland County Prison following the person’s preliminary arraignment.
The preliminary arraignment is one of the first steps in the criminal justice process that occurs around the time charges are filed and usually the point when bail is set in a criminal case.
Defendants who are brought into the prison are screened and if they qualify will be offered entry into the court program.
Defendants must first go through detox at the prison, Brewbaker said, but can enter the Opioid Intervention Court the day after that is completed.
Anyone who enters the program will be required to attend daily meetings with Brewbaker, follow a treatment and recovery plan, be subject to frequent and random drug tests and have a nightly curfew.
Brewbaker described the program as a triage court meant to help get people in need of treatment stable and on the path to recovery before moving forward.
For some, this could mean their case is diverted to treatment or mental health court and a possibility of not ending up with a criminal record.
For others, Brewbaker said she hopes the court can provide stability as the defendant goes through the system.
“Success for me is to keep the participants alive,” she said.
The county has teamed up with the RASE Project, a local recovery community organization, and is receiving funding from the Sherman Foundation to assist with things like transportation, education services and job training for participants.
Brewbaker said the program is expected to have about 150 participants per year with about 30 to 50 participants at any given time.
“Opioid related deaths in Cumberland County have doubled in just two years,” County Commissioner Vince DiFilippo said in a written statement. “Many departments within county government have worked together in a coordinated, comprehensive way to address the opioid epidemic. Through the combined efforts of our court system, Drug & Alcohol Commission and many community partners, we are making strides to slow this trend.”