As Palm Beach County’s chief circuit judge, Jeffrey Colbath has had a courtroom view of the opioid epidemic’s toll on society during the past few years.
He also is aware that local leaders have pleaded to Gov. Rick Scott for help to curb the crisis, only to be ignored.
That’s why Colbath decided to write his own letter to Scott, asking the governor to declare a public-health emergency to fight the epidemic.
“I don’t imagine he’s getting a lot of letters from chief judges. Hopefully it will at least cause him to pause a little longer and rethink it,” Colbath said in an interview with The Palm Beach Post.
Colbath’s letter, dated March 17, is similar to requests sent to Scott since February from Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, the Wellington Village Council and the Martin County Commission.
“I am writing to you with deep and growing concern over the deadly impact the opioid epidemic is having on our state. As chief judge of the 15th Judicial Circuit, I have witnessed how this escalating problem has particularly impacted Palm Beach County,’’ Colbath wrote.
“I request that you declare a public health emergency to marshal resources, implement new strategies and raise awareness so we can all more effectively combat this epidemic.”
The area’s drug treatment industry draws addicts from throughout the country, many of whom relapse and overdose in Palm Beach County. Stories in The Palm Beach Post have drawn attention to the problem and a recent law enforcement crackdown on industry practices and questionable operators has netted more than two dozen arrests.
Colbath, first elected to the bench in 1992, said “judges in the trenches” have seen an uptick in cases from the opioid epidemic. The victims and defendants come from all demographics, he said.
“It’s not just the poor or the easily ignored disenfranchised member of our community. It’s everybody,” he said.
Colbath said he hasn’t received a reply from Scott, and he’s not sure if he ever will. But he hopes his letter might catch the attention of someone in Scott’s administration and perhaps result in more money and resources to local communities.
“I do appreciate that it’s not the norm that a chief judge would write such a letter. But it’s an appropriate exercise of this office to call upon the governor to help out, to put this higher up on the priority list. It’s just the right thing do to,” Colbath told The Post.
In an email, Scott’s press secretary said the governor has received Colbath’s. “Governor Scott understands this is an important national issue and has spoken to the Trump administration about it,” the press secretary, Lauren Schenone, said.
She denied that Scott has ignored requests for help from local leaders. She said the governor’s proposed budget includes $2 million for “local law enforcement to conduct investigations related to heroin abuse.”
Colbath’s letter mentioned the 551 deaths from overdoses of all types tallied by the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner’s Office for the first 11 months of 2016.
“The statistics for 2016 are grim,’’ he wrote. “The death toll, once December’s numbers are in, (is) expected to approach or even exceed 600 deaths.’’
Colbath’s letter also mentioned the costs to Palm Beach County Fire Rescue: at least $1,500 to respond to each overdose call. “The emotional toll to them, furthermore, is incalculable,’’ he said.
“Our county and municipalities are bearing the brunt of these costs. Businesses are being harmed; families are being devastated. … We are doing what we can at the local level, but our resources are limited.’’
Although Colbath’s letter cited local statistics, he said the epidemic has spread beyond Palm Beach County:
“This is a statewide problem that requires a statewide response,’’ he wrote.
Circuit Judge Krista Marx, who in recent years has presided over drug court and this summer will take over as chief judge, praised Colbath’s decision to write to Scott.
“That just speaks to the level this has reached,” Marx said, referring to the opioid crisis.
“Anybody who sits on the criminal bench will tell you our drug cases, and, of late, the heroin cases, are the engine that runs our criminal justice system, even if (defendants) are not specifically charged with a drug crime it’s so inextricably intertwined with other crimes.”
Florida Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, and the Florida Senate Democratic Caucus also have sent letters urging Scott to declare the heroin crisis a public-health emergency.
Colbath agreed to talk about the letter after The Post obtained a copy and published a blog about it Tuesday morning. He said he had received messages of thanks from criminal justice employees after news of his letter appeared in The Insider blog on The Post’s website.
“I didn’t do some big press release about the letter. Maybe I should be little more public about it,” he said.
By Joe Capozzi