Judge who sees many opioid cases supports involuntary treatment for those who survive overdoses

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In one northeast Pennsylvania county, more than 50 percent of people arrested for driving under the influence reportedly have drugs and alcohol in their system.

For the most part, the drugs that show up are heroin, Oxycontin and Percocet, Michael Barrasse, Lackawanna County’s president judge, told the Times-Tribune editorial board. He also says that in Pennsylvania, DUI deaths caused by drivers under the influence of opioids now exceed drunken driving fatalities.

“At the rates going today, I don’t think we’ve bottomed out yet. I think it’s going to get worse,” said Barrasse, who is urging the state to fund more court treatment programs.

Barasse created the Lackawanna County treatment court program, according to an earlier Times Tribune article. For every $1 spent on the program, the state saves $8 in criminal justice and health care costs, he testified at a state senate committee hearing this month.

During his testimony, Barasse advocated for state law that would allow voluntary or involuntary treatment for people brought to emergency rooms after receiving naloxone, a medication that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. According to him, the proposal would not be unlike an existing state law that allows involuntary commitment if someone’s mental health poses a danger to themselves or others.

“The family has to watch them die in front of them or hope they get arrested or bring down charges to the district attorney and say, ‘They stole from us,’” Barasse testified. “Now the criminal justice system is being used as a punitive tool for a clinical disease.”

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