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COVID-19 is, in fact, ending lives, but not only how you think

As the immediate past-presiding Drug Treatment Court judge for Waukesha County, I write this to highlight some of the challenges that have affected our court system. As we all know, the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) is costing the lives of individuals who succumb and are unable to beat it back. It is also causing more damage as the ripple effects of social distancing create voids in our everyday lives. Recently, I learned that one of my former DTC graduates, a young man who beat the odds and was not only moving forward with his life soberly but was acting as a mentor to others in need, overdosed and died. He didn’t die from COVID-19, but the side effects of social distancing and an inability to see and hear from others in his situation may have contributed to his decision to return to using.

Working with persons who are struggling with addiction has helped me as a judge understand how important the structure of sobriety is to recovery. Direct and individual reinforcement of sobriety is very much a part of that structure. Moreover, with recovery, the vast majority of the adults that have come before me on drug-related charges would never be in our court system and would, instead, live meaningful and contributing lives.

While we are staying safely cocooned in our homes, eating popcorn and binge-watching television as the dogs and children bounce off the walls, there are very limited or no in-person AA and NA meetings. Everything is virtual, if at all. But, that may not be enough. Drug dealers have phones and have no reason to take time off from their effective practice of texting current and past addicts. It only takes one time for a dose to be fatal. In fact, the danger is increased for individuals who have been sober because almost always their former tolerance level is significantly degraded. Social distancing and the accompanying policies were designed to save lives, but they also have ramifications that require our community recognition.

From a court perspective, recovery and treatment programs are an “essential” part of the process by which these individuals “stay safe.” Said differently, the work of all of our Waukesha County treatment courts is made more successful with social interaction among recovery peers. Zoom meetings and conference calls are nice, but for some of the adults in our court system seeking recovery, they are not enough.

The drug epidemic is not taking a time out; it is continuing to insinuate itself into our community. Overdose deaths were on the rise before COVID-19 and this will continue after the pandemic is controlled. After we get back to normal, figures may sadly show that more recovering individuals have lost their battles to overdoses as they “shelter at home.”

It is my belief that our court system would be more effective and efficient and our community safer if recovery mandates were considered as “essential activities,” allowing the structure of recovery to be maintained. Recovery doesn’t have to stop for COVID-19. And, it should not.

In the meantime, our Treatment Court community mourns our lost member. He was a child to parents, a sibling to brothers or sisters and a friend to many. All of us pray that others remain safe.

(The Hon. Maria S. Lazar is a former Treatment Court judge and current presiding judge, of the Criminal/Traffic Division of the Waukesha County Circuit Court.)


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