Handling Heroin In The Courts

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Heroin related deaths more than doubled last year in Jefferson county. All this week, WBHM explored Alabama’s heroin problem. With a rise in use of the drug, police report more heroin arrests, and judges say their dockets are filling up with cases. According to Birmingham’s drug court, eight out of ten cases are for heroin. Today, we conclude our series with a look at the courts. Ashley Cleek followed one addict into the criminal justice system to see what works and what doesn’t.

Cody Standard is sitting in a conference room at the courthouse downtown — two blocks away from the library, the civic center, and heroin.

“Here in downtown Birmingham, I can go get dope two blocks away. Right now,” Standard says.

Heroin is cheap too; a bag of dope costs $15 to $20.

“I could be back here in 10 minutes, and I’ll be high,” Standard says honestly. “Already have it shot, and I won’t have a needle around me or nothing. We could be doing the interview as if nothing happened.”

Standard is only 28, but he has been addicted to drugs for half his life. He started injecting opiates when he was 21. He’s lost most of his teeth and been homeless for over a year, sleeping in Southside, and shooting up.

Today, though, he’s trying. He prepared for this interview. He has a green spiral notebook, where he’s jotted down interview points. He shaved his long hair and has on a clean, green polo shirt. As he walks through the courtroom, Judge Stephen Wallace is happy to see him; he clasps Standard on the shoulder.

“Just come back the 27th…of this month.” Wallace reminds Standard about his next drub test, then jokes, “Where’d you get the Vestavia Country Club shirt from?”

Judge Wallace has taken a special interest in Standard. He’s has seen Standard circle through the courts for years, but Wallace still has hope Standard will get clean.

Wallace says he’s seen the number of heroin cases surge in past few years, and often finds himself in a bind. Sending an addict to prison is expensive, and it doesn’t cure their addiction.

“They will walk out of the prison doors with a bus pass and 20 dollars, and there is no one there to monitor them or help them when they walk out the door,” Wallace explains candidly.

That’s exactly what Standard did. He was in prison for 6 months, and the moment he arrived at the bus station downtown, a friend picked him up and handed him some a beer, a blunt, and Suboxone, an often-abused prescription opiate.

Instead, Judge Wallace urges drugs tests, community service, and treatment. But sometimes, he says, nothing works. He remembers a young woman who was in his courtroom over a year ago. She was addicted to heroin, and the court was monitoring her closely. Just that morning, Wallace had ordered her to be drug tested, and she was clean.

“She passed away that afternoon from a heroin overdose,” Wallace remembers. “The system worked, in my mind, perfectly, and for heroin it wasn’t enough to save her. I don’t know if you can say that about any other drug.”

Foster Cook says there are so many of these stories. He’s the director of substance abuse programs at UAB and runs a program called Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities — better known as TASC. TASC works inside the justice system, helping the courts and jails figure out how to deal with addicts and helping addicts find ways to get clean.

“We just continue to see the price of heroin going down and the number of overdoses going up,” Cook says. “It’s tough. Heroin is cheaper than treatment.”

Judge Wallace used to be able to release addicts from jail to one of Foster Cook’s TASC case managers, who would monitor addicts and get them into treatment before they went to trial. But that program was cut in 2011, before the rise in heroin. Cook says without that program, it’s harder for TASC to get in to addicts out of the criminal justice system and into treatment.

“When [heroin addicts] do get out without any supervision, they fail to come to court at a much higher level, warrants get issued, they get new offenses, and they don’t get into treatment,” Cooks explains.

Currently, heroin addicts like Cody Standard often sit in jail. While it protects them from overdose, Cook says, at $50 a day jail is expensive and addicts are receiving no treatment. In comparison, Cook explains, a supervision by a case manager costs five to ten dollars a day.

Everyone is trying — Standard, Cook, and Wallace. With limited resources, their options are few. Standard has no insurance to go to rehab and no money to get treatment, which could cost $300 to $400 a month. For now, he lives in a halfway house.

“It’s hard,” Standard says. “I’m working on it. I haven’t given up yet. The judge hasn’t given up on me. So, there’s only two options, though and that’s recovery or death. I came close in January [Eds: cook overdosed while shooting up]. I have no doubt that if I go back out there, I’ll end up dead.”

For Standard, this is the very beginning of kicking addiction, but Cook is worried about Alabama. He thinks it’s far from the end of its heroin problem.

Naloxone Helps Stop Heroin Overdoses in Alabama, But Still Not Widely Used
01-28-2016

In Jefferson County, heroin abuse rose dramatically in 2014. The county coroner attributed more than 140 deaths to heroin. Law enforcement and the state have been rushing to respond. Last year, the state legislature approved access to a heroin antidote: naloxone, more commonly known as narcan. If used properly, naloxone can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose. Public health officials in Alabama are trying raise awareness and get the potentially life-saving drug to the people who need it most.

High Costs of Heroin Addiction Treatment Put Significant Strain on Families
01-26-2016

Heroin abuse continues to rise nationally and in Alabama, leaving more people searching for ways to kick addiction. Families ask friends, professionals and scour the Internet looking for the best, and most affordable, treatment for their loved one. But the financial burdens can be crippling, sometimes thousands upon thousands of dollars.

The Low Price and High Cost of Heroin
01-25-2016

Heroin overdose deaths are on the rise nationally. In Jefferson County, deaths increased by more than 140 percent in 2014. The numbers were shocking: Heroin caused or contributed to 144 deaths in 2014. Area law enforcement responded by increasing efforts to get traffickers and drugs off the streets, especially in Birmingham.

As Heroin Use Rises, More Families Struggle With Loss And Addiction
08-6-2015

Heroin use has exploded in Alabama, and heroin-related deaths more than doubled in Jefferson County last year. That means more and more relatives have to cope with the mistrust, deception and shame that come with addiction. Despite the stigma, parents and families are reaching out for help.

Uncovering Alabama’s Hidden Hepatitis C Problem
06-22-2015

Injection drug use is on the rise around the country, feeding an increase in cases of the blood-borne liver disease Hepatitis C. The Centers for Disease control says that, nationally, Hepatitis C infections rose 150 percent in the last 3 years. But the spread of the disease in Alabama is hard to measure. Doctors and health care officials are trying new ways to determine the true spread of the disease here in Alabama — doctors like Jim Galbraith, an emergency room physician at UAB.