AURORA | Prosecutors in Aurora’s largest judicial district have unveiled a new pilot program intended to free some adults charged with possessing a small amount of drugs from the snare of the legal system.
District Attorney John Kellner on Thursday announced the launch of a “recovery diversion program” that will allow qualifying residents accused of possessing an illegal substance or drug paraphernalia to opt in to treatment with the nonprofit mental health group AllHealth Network.
Those who complete the program, which will likely involve an initial screening and up to half a dozen meetings with a counselor, will be eligible to have their charges dismissed, according to a news release.
The initial iteration of the program has about 20 slots available, though additional capacity is expected to be slowly added, potentially alleviating swollen dockets that have ballooned due to pandemic-related case backlogs.
At a town hall last month, Kellner said there are currently about 1,600 pending cases in Arapahoe County and some 2,000 cases awaiting resolution in Douglas County. Several hundred more await conclusions in Elbert and Lincoln County, too.
There were about 1,000 scheduled jury trials in Kellner’s four-county jurisdiction as of the end of June, he said. In August alone, Arapahoe County has more than 100 cases set for trial.
“That is just an incredible number of cases,” Kellner said.
The case backlog looms as reports of increased overdose deaths in the region continue to percolate. Across the country, overdose deaths rose by nearly a third last year, with increases in Colorado estimated to be about 37 percent year over year, according to federal data.
“There is no question that too many people in our community struggle with addiction issues,” Kellner said in a statement. “Rather than see them in and out of courtrooms, it makes more sense and is more compassionate to find a way to get them help in addressing the underlying problem. This pilot program is a first step in testing a way to do more of that.”
Overdose deaths soared to a record 93,000 last year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. government reported Wednesday.
That estimate far eclipses the high of about 72,000 drug overdose deaths reached the previous year and amounts to a 29% increase.
“This is a staggering loss of human life,” said Brandon Marshall, a Brown University public health researcher who tracks overdose trends.
The nation was already struggling with its worst overdose epidemic but clearly “COVID has greatly exacerbated the crisis,” he added.
Lockdowns and other pandemic restrictions isolated those with drug addictions and made treatment harder to get, experts said.
While prescription painkillers once drove the nation’s overdose epidemic, they were supplanted first by heroin and then by fentanyl, a dangerously powerful opioid, in recent years. Fentanyl was developed to treat intense pain from ailments like cancer but has increasingly been sold illicitly and mixed with other drugs.
“What’s really driving the surge in overdoses is this increasingly poisoned drug supply,” said Shannon Monnat, an associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University who researches geographic patterns in overdoses. “Nearly all of this increase is fentanyl contamination in some way. Heroin is contaminated. Cocaine is contaminated. Methamphetamine is contaminated.”
Fentanyl was involved in more than 60% of the overdose deaths last year, CDC data suggests.
There’s no current evidence that more Americans started using drugs last year, Monnat said. Rather, the increased deaths most likely were people who had already been struggling with addiction. Some have told her research team that suspensions of evictions and extended unemployment benefits left them with more money than usual. And they said “when I have money, I stock up on my (drug) supply,” she said.
Overdose deaths are just one facet of what was overall the deadliest year in U.S. history. With about 378,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19, the nation saw more than 3.3 million deaths.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reviewed death certificates to come up with the estimate for 2020 drug overdose deaths. The estimate of over 93,000 translates to an average of more than 250 deaths each day, or roughly 11 every hour.
The 21,000 increase is the biggest year-to-year jump since the count rose by 11,000 in 2016.
In Arapahoe County, Aurora’s largest county, drug-related deaths rose about 40% in 2020, according to Coroner Dr. Kelly Lear.
“The increase in drug overdose deaths is predominantly driven by fentanyl deaths (seen alone or in combination with other drugs), which have steadily increased over the past few years (21 deaths in 2018, 44 deaths in 2019, and 71 deaths in 2020),” officials wrote in the coroner’s annual wrote.
Cocaine deaths also doubled in the county last year, mirroring a statewide trend that saw fatalities related to the drug at their highest rate in two decades last year, according to the state health department.
The proliferation of fentanyl is one reason some experts do not expect any substantial decline in drug overdose deaths this year. Though national figures are not yet available, there is data emerging from some states that seems to support their pessimism. Rhode Island, for example, reported 34 overdose deaths in January and 37 in February — the most for those months in at least five years.
Staffers in the district attorney’s office have estimated that as many as 1,000 people could have been eligible for the new diversion program in the past three years.
The pilot will operate in tandem with existing diversion courts in the jurisdiction.
“We know that successful treatment works in addressing addiction issues in juveniles,”
Diversion Director Sarah Ericson said in a statement. “I am excited to be able to expand our efforts to eligible adults. If we can work with them to get help, they can avoid a criminal record and perhaps start down a new road that doesn’t include arrests and prosecutions.”
To qualify for the program, defendants cannot have had a felony conviction in the past five years or a pending felony case, according to information posted to district attorney’s website. They also must be free from any serious traffic or misdemeanor crimes for at least two years, and ideally will not have any such pending cases.
Defendants who participate in the program are on the hook for the affiliated costs, though most insurance providers should cover the fees. A state program through the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health may also provide gap funding for those who cannot pay.
Anyone seeking additional information on the program is encouraged to email [email protected].
— The Associated Press contributed to this story.