Brooklyn DA announces pre-court drug addiction treatment program
With the opioid epidemic plaguing the country, a new program funded by the City Council and launched by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office seeks to keep people arrested for misdemeanor drug possession out of jail and get them into treatment, the district attorney announced Tuesday.
Brooklyn CLEAR (Collaborative Legal Engagement Assistance Response) gives people struggling with addiction who are arrested for criminal drug possession in the seventh degree, the ability to bypass the criminal justice system and go straight to treatment.
“Our justice system cannot be; it should not be just about punishing people. It should be about saving people’s lives,” said District Attorney Eric Gonzalez at MCU Park in Coney Island, a neighborhood with significant amounts of overdoses.
The pilot program launched last month in areas with high overdose rates, including the 60th Precinct (Coney Island), 61st Precinct (Sheepshead Bay), 62nd Precinct (Bensonhurst, Gravesend), 68th Precinct (Dyker Heights, Bay Ridge), 71st Precinct (Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Crown Heights) and 72nd Precinct (Sunset Park).
A third of — or 84 of last year’s 251 overdose deaths that occurred in Brooklyn — occurred within those precincts. This year, they have seen 13 overdose deaths.
For those arrested on misdemeanor possession for any drug and are eligible for a desk appearance ticket to court, police in those six precincts will call the Brooklyn DA’s Office. The office will then notify the nonprofit, Empower Assist Care (EAC) Network, who will send a peer mentor, with experience in addiction, to talk to the person at the precinct.
If the arrested person wishes to go ahead with an assessment within seven days, they can opt out of their initial court appearance. The DA’s Office will then decline to prosecute the case and seal the arrest if the person carries on with treatment within 30 days.
Peer mentors will also provide a Naloxone kit, an emergency overdose response medicine.
“We are choosing to invest in love, compassion and true justice,” said Councilmember Mark Treyger, who represents Coney Island, Gravesend, Sea Gate and Bensonhurst. “You cannot incarcerate your way out of this problem. You are not going to solve this crisis in a jail cell.”
Community members who have faced addiction in their families spoke in support of the program, including Elise Bernhardt, whose son was saved from Naloxone.
“We never expected that our son would be shooting heroin,” Bernhardt said. “I don’t think anyone is ever prepared for the shame and the guilt, the ripping apart of the family.”
Bernhardt’s son overdosed three months ago. If it were not for the speedy response from the police, she said he would be dead.
“I think that what DA Gonzalez and the NYPD are doing with this CLEAR program is absolutely what has to happen for anything to change in this country,” Bernhardt said.
Abraham Klein’s daughter was not saved when she overdosed, however. Klein explained that as a Jewish family with strong morals, they never expected to have to deal with a child doing drugs.
Klein called the program “long overdue” and urged the importance of nurturing persons with addictions back to health rather than punishing them.
“This today is a big, big piece of a holistic approach to making it clear that locking up someone and throwing away the key is not the prescription to this disease,” said Councilmember Justin Brannan, representative for Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst and Bath Beach.
Brooklyn CLEAR, funded with a $600,000 grant from the City Council, has seen 76 arrests and 29 persons referred to the program since its soft opening. The program is modeled after Staten Island’s HOPE program that was launched last year.
Supported by numerous activist groups and the Legal Aid Society, Gonzalez hopes the program that will serve about 700 people will eventually serve thousands boroughwide.
“It’s a big deal, folks. We are treating addiction as a health issue and not a criminal justice issue,” Gonzalez said. “We are saying that we are prioritizing people’s lives over securing convictions.”