Judges Call for More Court Action on Opioid Crisis

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Photo by US Department of Agriculture via Flickr

State courts should become more active and better trained in handling cases involving opioids and other addictions, a task force created by two national judicial organizations said Wednesday.

The group said that most opioid abusers who survive their addictions end up in court, whether the case involves an arrest for stealing to feed their addiction or an agency’s finding that they are unfit parents.

Whatever the reason, state courts are the nation’s top referral source for addiction treatment, the task force said.

“For years, the justice system knew how to be ‘tough on drugs,’ ” said Deborah Taylor Tate, Tennessee Director of Courts and co-chair of the panel. “Now is the time for us to become ‘smart’ on drugs.”

The task force, which spent two years studying the opioid epidemic’s affect on courts, was made up of 34 state court leaders from 24 states. It was co-chaired by Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush.

The judges and administrators said “it takes an enormous amount of time to figure out what is best for people with substance abuse disorders, how to care for their children, and what resources are available for them,” noting that people placed in a treatment program with court oversight may remain involved with the court for many years.

“Judges must exert leadership and advocate for the availability of quality, evidence-based
treatment services as the best and most effective response to the opioid epidemic,” the report concludes.

A majority of chief justices and court administrators called the epidemic’s impact on the courts “severe” in a recent survey.

Among the report’s specific recommendations:

–Judges should take the lead in their states by creating and participating in
local, state, and regional opioid task forces.

–State courts should collaborate with federal courts and prosecutors, and with child welfare agencies on treatment and other issues.

–Courts should use the “Sequential Intercept Model,” which the task force describes as “a conceptual approach that identifies key points within the criminal justice system at which those with behavioral health issues” can be provided services to address the underlying issues that brought them into the system.

–State courts should develop opioid overdose response protocols, including naloxone or its equivalent.

–Judges and court administrators should explore creating new family-treatment drug courts that address the needs of parents with substance use disorders who are involved in the child welfare system.

–Courts should consider setting up “Safe Baby Courts,” which the task force has have proved effective in addressing the unique needs of infants and their parents affected by  the opioid epidemic.

–Judges and justice system employees who deal with people with substance abuse  disorders should be trained in issues that include the science of brain disorders, the impact of adverse childhood experiences and trauma from those experiences, the  potential increased risks to those who are released from incarceration or medical  treatment, the importance of using only certified and evidence-based treatment, and the  risks of exposure to fentanyl, carfentanyl and their analogs.

Indiana Chief Justice Rush concluded that “the misuse of opioids such as heroin, morphine, and prescription pain medications is not only a devastating public health crisis, it is critically affecting the administration of justice in courthouses throughout the United States. It’s crucial that judges are involved in reversing this epidemic.”

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