Monroe County has launched a program that law enforcement officials said will help people with drug addictions get into treatment programs instead of going to jail.
Project HOPE, which stands for Heroin Overdose Prevention and Education, is different than other court-mandated drug programs, said District Attorney Sandra Doorley.
“Those who are eligible for Project HOPE won’t even see the inside of a courtroom, so their charges, ultimately, will never be filed with the court and never be prosecuted,” Doorley said.
Instead, officers can help people accused of low-level drug offenses get into an addiction treatment program. If they make good progress, the charges disappear.
The program matters now, Doorley said, because in the first year after the creation of the county’s heroin task force in February 2018, more than 1,100 people overdosed on opioids. Of those, 166 died.
Doorley said some officers have already started recommending the program to people on the street – though the DA’s office has a long list of restrictions on who is eligible.
The case cannot involve any kind of drug sale or allegations of domestic violence. Clients cannot be on parole and cannot have any bench warrants or other pending charges, nor any prior felony convictions or misdemeanor history involving violence. Clients must also be reachable by phone or text.
Tim Donaher, the Monroe County public defender, said that list might sound like it would leave only a tiny sliver of people who qualify for Project HOPE, but that’s actually not the case.
“It’s not as small as you think,” Donaher said. “Some of those restrictions are to balance public safety concerns, but also practical concerns.”
If a person doesn’t have a phone, for example, it’s difficult to stay in touch with treatment providers to schedule appointments and stay in recovery, Donaher said. If a person has a history of violence or other serious charges, a more structured environment might be necessary for recovery and rehabilitation.
Donaher said his role in the criminal justice system usually puts him opposite Doorley and other law enforcement officials, but in this case, they’re mostly on the same side.
“I’d like to see maybe a loosening of the restrictions,” Donaher said. “But I just can’t say enough about the DA’s office and the sheriff and the chief of police’s willingness to consider an alternative to arrest program. I think that’s a wonderful idea.”
Doorley said she expects 200 to 300 people to be eligible for Project HOPE in its first year.
She and Donaher agreed that, at its root, the program is about saving lives. “Sometimes you just gotta give someone a chance,” Doorley said. “This is a chance that I hope people will take advantage of. Sometimes all you need to say is, ‘Hey, do you need help?’ ”