Rochester drug court amid opioid crisis: "It's overwhelming"

Judge Jack Elliott presides over Rochester's drug court. He estimates eight of ten people he sees there are addicted to opioids. (WHAM photo)

Rochester, N.Y. (WHAM) - "All rise. Court is in session."

While presiding over drug court, Jack Elliott has heard it all. "I claim to be the most lied-to person in Monroe County," he said. "Oddly, even though I tell people not to use drugs, they still do."

Over the years, the former public defender and Rochester City Court Judge has heard it all - even when it comes to heroin.

Until now.

"It's the scary stuff that's coming in now: fentanyl. People are dying left and right," Elliot told 13 WHAM's Jane Flasch.

When Rochester's drug court diversion program opened 23 years ago, there were only five other similar programs in the country and none in New York State. This court has long dealt with addictive drugs but seldom with drugs as deadly as what is being consumed in this opioid epidemic.

The harshest drugs laced with fentanyl hit the streets in batches.

"They hear people are dying from it and they think, 'This must be the good stuff.' It's scary that people see this but still use," said Elliott.

It is not unusual to see people in this court fall into a relapse. But this drug continues to pull back many who have so much promise and have worked so hard to overcome its grip. Elliott remembered one case that led to a bad two weeks.

"I saw her Thursday and she was doing great - had been clean for 90 days," Elliot said. "The next day she was dead. It was five people within two weeks - dead."

When asked whether it ever gets to be too much, Judge Elliott responded, "Yes. It's a difficult job."

Elliot explained that when someone fails to show up to court, often indicating a relapse, he issues a bench warrant.

"It's a very dangerous time for someone trying to get clean. They're probably out there actively using. Their body is no longer used to that," Elliot said.

The Monroe County Sheriff's Office now gives warrants from drug court special attention.

"I've had someone within 24 hours back in my court. It gets them safely off the street and safely back to me," said Elliott.

Drug court is for people with a significant criminal history who also have a significant addiction. Estimates are that eight of every ten defendants are addicted to opioids.

In dealing with the magnitude of this crisis, Judge Elliott remembers one thing.

"I can only deal with the person in front of me. So although we do change the world we change it one person at a time," he said. "That's what I focus on."

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