Bronx drug courts offer defendants a 2nd chance

An innovative new program in the Bronx is giving drug addicts who have committed low-level, nonviolent crimes a chance at a new life before it is too late.

The words of Bronx County Criminal Court Supervising Judge George Grasso—"We will in this proceeding bend over backwards to work with you"—were not what you'd expect from the bench in criminal court. But this was in a courtroom for OAR—Overdose Avoidance and Recovery—where those arrested can get clean with treatment and have a clean record instead of a drug habit and a criminal charge.

"The thing to know about our OAR track is that it is not the normal sense of crime and punishment," Judge Grasso said outside of court. "Our track is about compassion and recovery."

With the Bronx ground zero for the city's opioid epidemic and the overdose death toll in the borough rivaling the murder rate for the entire city, Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark felt an urgent need for solutions. She said she believes the program that she initiated will help save lives.

"It's a disaster, it's an absolute catastrophe that hundreds of people are dying of overdoses from opioids, whether it's from heroin, prescription pills, or from fentanyl," Clark said.

Clark said that people arrested for nonviolent minor offenses like shoplifting and who are proven to have a drug addiction can qualify. Out of an initial 250 cases screened in December, 52 defendants proved to be eligible.

"It's not being soft on crime—it's being smart on crime because these people will continue to go through the system because of their problem," Clark told reporters. "If you don't address the problem, you're going to continue to have the crime. If we address the problem, I believe we will reduce the crime."

The OAR team has many options ensure compliance, according to Maria Almonte, the project director for Bronx Community Solutions.

Clark said another aspect of the program is that it did not have to wait for special funding. It was launched immediately using existing resources and organizations.