After three defendants fatally overdosed in a single week last year, it became clear that Buffalo's ordinary drug treatment court was no match for the heroin and painkiller crisis.
Now the city is experimenting with the nation's first opioid crisis intervention court, which can get users into treatment within hours of their arrest instead of days, requires them to check in with a judge every day for a month instead of once a week, and puts them on strict curfews. Administering justice takes a back seat to the overarching goal of simply keeping defendants alive.
Buffalo-area health officials blamed 300 deaths on opioid overdoses in 2016, up from 127 two years earlier. That includes a young couple who did not make it to their second drug court appearance last spring. The woman's father arrived instead to tell the judge his daughter and her boyfriend had died the night before.
"This 30-day thing is like being beat up and being asked to get in the ring again, and you're required to," 36-year-old Ron Woods said after one of his daily face-to-face meetings with City Court Judge Craig Hannah, who presides over the program.
Woods said his heroin use started with an addiction to painkillers prescribed after cancer treatments that began when he was 21. He was arrested on drug charges in mid-May and agreed to intervention with the dual hope of kicking the opioids that have killed two dozen friends and seeing the felony charges against him reduced or dismissed.
"I don't want to die in the streets, especially with the fentanyl out there," Sammy Delgado, one of the handcuffed defendants, said.