OTTAWA — Every once in a while, Judge Chad Niese receives a letter thanking him for saving someone’s life who was addicted to heroin.
The letters are few and far between, but they are the reason Niese continues to believe heroin addicts can receive help and be saved.
Niese, who is the judge for the municipal court in Putnam County, is a realist who knows once an addict is before him, the battle is uphill the whole way. He also believes the best way to stop someone from getting on heroin is to stop a person before he or she even tries the drug.
That is why Niese and others in the county go to all the high schools, speaking about the dangers of opioid-based pain killers and heroin.
Niese has been a judge for 11 years, and heroin and prescription opioid pills have been around for almost half of that time.
“I remember seeing it for the first time. It was a gentleman on probation, and he tested positive for opioid prescription drugs,” Niese said, recalling he had no idea it was only the beginning of a big problem in the county of 34,000 people.
The man did not have a prescription for the drug, Niese said.
“That’s when I first started noticing it,” he said.
The addicts come from all backgrounds, young and old, poor to well-to-do families. Heroin and opioids do not discriminate, he said. Heroin users tend to be younger, in their 20s, while opioid pills are used by all age groups, he said.
Niese tries to help all defendants, so they can go on to live productive lives, especially those at risk of committing new crimes and possibly a felony that will destroy their lives.
And it just doesn’t affect the addict; it affects his or her family. It can be a simple as the addict stealing to parents turning their children in to the police. He’s even seen a parent get a call saying their child overdosed and died, he said.
He tries to fashion a sentence to address the problem. For addicts, that often means some jail time, with the balance hung over their head while they get treatment. He relies on outside agencies, whether its outpatient or inpatient treatment to handle that.
But for a person to change, that person has to be committed, he said.
“The most challenging part is seeing someone who doesn’t want to change. If they don’t want to change, there is very little that we can do or the probation department can do that will make a difference. The opioid or heroin addiction is so strong unless they choose to take the first step, it likely is going to be really difficult for them,” Niese said.
That bothers Niese because he knows the end result can be death. Most other drugs don’t kill, but heroin can be fatal. He’s had addicts who came before him he later learned overdosed.
There are two ways Niese finds out someone is addicted to heroin or an opioid: the person tells him, or the person tests positive. They come in streaks. He may go a few months without one, and then it’s every week for a while, he said.
“The defendants that I have typically have been that we found out as a result of a probation violation. They test dirty,” he said.
The crimes run the gamut too. It’s not just thefts where someone steals to support their drug habit; he sees domestic violence and drunken driving as the crimes.
“Cases a positive test comes up runs the gamut,” he said. “There really isn’t one specific thing, and that’s what makes it more troubling for me on this end. It seems to effect people from all walks. You see it from folks you wouldn’t expect to see it from. I’ve had anywhere from housewives to college students.”
So while Niese spends his days trying to deal with people whose destructive behavior often landed them in trouble, he continues to believe the best way to help people is to prevent someone from trying drugs in the first place.
“We can sit on this end and try to play catch up, which is basically what we are doing, but trying to address it before it becomes a problem is the biggest thing we can do,” he said. “The biggest thing with this entire epidemic is educating the kids. Don’t let it begin. By the time it gets to the court system, you already have a big problem.”
Reach Greg Sowinski at 567-242-0464 or on Twitter @Lima_Sowinski.
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