Following more than two years of field hearings, cross-disciplinary partnerships and in-depth study of best practices, national judicial leaders have established a comprehensive approach for judges to tackle the crisis of addiction. According to the final report of the National Judicial Opioid Task Force (NJOTF), judges must engage in individualized assessments that contain mental health and behavioral health conditions, detoxification services – including the use of medication-assisted treatment – and psychosocial services to build resilience and recovery.

“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. The task force was co-chaired by Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Tennessee director of courts Deborah Taylor Tate. Thirty-four state court leaders representing 24 states served on the task force.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the criminal justice system is the single largest source of referral to substance use disorder treatment. However, the report notes that “the opioid epidemic is not just a criminal justice issue,” but impacts every court in the country. The report specifically highlights that foster care rates have spiked in recent years as the crisis strains the nation’s child welfare system. The report also says judges must consider that substance use disorder is a chronic treatable disease when issuing orders and sentences. The report underscores that legislators, along with executive branch and federal agencies, must recognize state courts as essential partners in the nation’s response to the opioid crisis.

“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,” said Rush.

The NJOTF was established in 2017 by the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) and the Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA) as the opioid epidemic, once viewed exclusively as a criminal justice issue, increasingly impacted courts at all levels of the justice system – divorce, custody, foster care, bankruptcy, guardianship, business, workers compensation and more. While state courts are at the center of the crisis, they are not always involved in critical policy discussions regarding solutions to the crisis.

“For years, the justice system knew how to be ‘tough on drugs,’ now is the time for us to become ‘smart’ on drugs,” said Tate.

The report findings:

  • There is a lack of access to education about the use of quality, evidence-based treatment including medication-based treatment;
  • The most significant impact of the epidemic involves cases with children and families;
  • Congress and federal agencies must recognize state courts as essential partners in the response to the crisis; and
  • State courts must design programs and resources that will be effective responses to the next addiction crisis, not just opioids.

The full report is available online at ncsc.org/opioids.

The National Center for State Courts staffs CCJ and COSCA. The task force was funded through support from the State Justice Institute. The National Center for State Courts, headquartered in Williamsburg, Virginia, is a nonprofit court organization dedicated to improving the administration of justice by providing leadership and service to the state courts.

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