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Suffolk County Unveils Treatment-Based CARE Justice Program In Its War Against Opioids

CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) -- It is being hailed as a bold and innovate approach to the opioid epidemic -- a new form of justice for low-level drug offenders in Suffolk County.

Instead of punishment, they'll be offered a fresh start.

"This is a monumental day," Steve Chasman of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence told CBS2's Carolyn Gusoff on Monday.

It's the day Suffolk County launched a new approach to the opioid epidemic. It's called CARE: comprehensive addiction recovery and education. It's justice administered in drug-related case, but with a heart.

"To bring treatment as a real opportunity for the still sick and suffering from all backgrounds," said Harry Tillis of the Suffolk Criminal Bar Association.

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CARE court will give those arrested on addiction-related misdemeanors an immediate opportunity to get treatment. Until now, defendants were required to plead guilty first.

"We are going to remove that barrier and remove that requirement to take that plea and we believe that will further incentive evidence-based treatment," Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini said.

prescription opioids
Prescription opioids (Photo: CBS2)

If defendants complete up to 90 days of treatment, tailored to their addiction, charges will be dismissed and records will be sealed. Addiction expert Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds says getting addicts out of the criminal justice system quickly is the key to recovery.

"There are folks who commit low-level drug offenses. They are swept into the system and have a hard time ever getting out, and they look at it and say I already have a record, what the heck," Reynolds said.

Six hundred Long Islanders were buried last year, victims of opioid addiction. Judges say the program will only be offered to nonviolent, non-gang offenders

"The individuals are going to be screened. First-time offenders, limited record -- a drug motivation that led to the contact with the criminal justice system," said the Hon. Randall Hinrichs, a district administrative judge.

"It really gives a defendant with a drug problem a chance to get out of it unscathed and not to have live with collateral consequences that a conviction brings with it," district court supervising Judge Karen Kerr said.

If defendants stay clean, they can get off scot-free. If they re-offend, they're back to square one before a judge, who may or may not offer a second chance at treatment.

The program launched Monday is modeled after similar new drug courts in Buffalo and the Bronx.

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