David Michael Miller
In 2013, the Dane County District Attorney’s Office established a special deferment program for those charged with opioid-related crimes.
This allows prosecutors to recommend defendants suffering from opioid addiction for a special treatment program, which, if completed, could lead to the dismissal of the charges.
The program was immediately overwhelmed with candidates, says Pat Hrubesky, director of the Deferred Prosecution Unit. “We quickly discovered the need is just way beyond what we can possibly meet.”
To make the program more manageable, the DA’s office decided to limit it to people with less serious charges and little or no criminal history — typically people who had overdosed and were saved by medical personnel or police, Hrubesky says.
Defense attorney Michael Short says a lot of people suffering from drug addiction would clearly benefit from the program, but are unable to get into it. About a third of Short’s clients are accused of opioid-related crimes, and he attributes a spike in property-related crimes throughout the county to addictions.
“It is an absolute necessity that the county expand the program,” Short says.
Next year Short will get his wish, as the county adds funding to double the capacity of the program. County Executive Joe Parisi says he felt a duty to expand it. “If someone has a drug addiction, we don’t necessarily want to treat them as criminals, we want to treat this as the health condition that it is,” Parisi says. “Just putting someone in jail and not getting them treatment, letting them sit there and then letting them out, isn’t addressing the challenge and isn’t helping anyone.”
People referred to the program are required to meet weekly with the program’s lone caseworker, James Sauer, take frequent random drug tests, be in a treatment program and make restitution. They may also be required to do community service and get involved with community groups. If they fail to comply with the program, they can be prosecuted for the original charges and face jail time.
“It’s the intensity and the relationship of this that I believe has kept individuals aboard,” Sauer says. “Because they come here, they sit in that chair, they do their intake, and they see the contract. I can see it in their face — they don’t want to say anything, but when they leave this office they are saying, ‘Oh shit, I got to do all this crap, what did I sign up for, what am I doing here?’ In the beginning it is like that. After they’re a couple or several months in, they say the structure of this program ‘saved my life.’”
Sauer says about 60 to 65 percent of participants complete the program. “After three years, July 2013 to June 2016, the recidivism was 15 percent,” he adds. “I think that’s a very admirable statistic. It just told us we are doing something right, at least we hope so.”
Hrubesky says the program was one of a kind when it started, so she knew it would take some time to balance needs with resources.
“We started this in mid-2013, and it became immediately evident that it was going to be process changing because no one else has ever done this that we are aware of in the country,” Hrubesky says. “It is learning as we grow how to manage the program.”
Sauer has been overwhelmed with work since the program started. “James can manage at best 45 people at a time, and that is really pushing it,” Hrubesky says.
The program’s caseload may have been eased by naloxone, which goes by the brand name Narcan, a drug that can reverse a heroin overdose. In recent years, it has become more readily available. Many police officers routinely carry it, and it’s also widely available at drugstores.
Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill into law in December 2015 that allows standing orders to be written for pharmacies to dispense naloxone without a prescription.
On July 26, University Health Services psychiatrist Dr. Angela Janis wrote a standing prescription for naloxone for the Walgreens pharmacy at 311 E. Campus Mall. And on Aug. 26 the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Jon Meiman, signed a standing order that allows pharmacies statewide to dispense the drug.
“It is much, much more accessible now, and I hope that means we are going to see a continued decline in overdoses,” Hrubesky says.
While the drug is saving lives, it could also be keeping some addicts from having contact with police, reducing the deferred prosecution unit’s caseload. “People who are overdosing are less likely to have to rely on first responders,” Hrubesky says.
Short agrees that there are people who could benefit from being charged with a crime. “That is one thing about the criminal justice system; it does have the ability to force people into treatment,” he says. “Once these people are forced into it, it seems like there are a fair amount of success stories. I go to drug court, and it is amazing the transformation some of these people make while they are in the program.”
With the program’s expansion, the county is now considering offering it to those who have been charged with more serious crimes and may have criminal histories—as well as those with more minor charges, like simple possession. However, anyone charged with or convicted of a violent crime is still ineligible.
The program has relied primarily on a grant from the state Department of Justice’s treatment alternatives and diversion program, but this year the DA’s office received a smaller grant.
“So what I decided to do in the 2017 budget was to fill the rest of the need that the grant didn’t cover plus add an additional full diversion specialist to the program, bringing up our capabilities to 80 people,” Parisi says.
A second caseworker will allow the program to serve twice as many people. Sauer expects to have the position filled within the first quarter of 2017. Short says many of his opiate-addicted clients are considered to be on the low end of criminality. Diverting these addicts into a treatment alternative would do wonders, not just for Short’s clients but for the criminal justice system.
“Opiate addiction is so prevalent right now it is affecting every part of the criminal justice system,” he says. “There are so many opiate addicts that are repeatedly committing crimes right now to support their addictions that I really think it is overwhelming the system.”