After more than two years of work, the SJI-supported National Judicial Opioid Task Force (NJOTF) this week released a report that lays the groundwork for state courts nationwide to treat opioid-addicted defendants more like patients than criminals by using a combination of counseling services and medicated-assisted treatment.
The release of the report was attended by more than 100 court leaders and health and government leaders, including U.S. Surgeon General VADM Jerome M. Adams, and Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, James W. Carroll Jr., at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Watch the press conference here.
“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,” said Indiana Chief Justice Loretta H. Rush, who co-chaired the task force along with Tennessee Director of Courts Deborah Taylor Tate. In all, 34 state court leaders, representing 24 states, served on the task force, which was staffed by the National Center for State Courts.
Surgeon General Adams praised the task force and agreed with the report’s findings. “The opioid crisis has ravaged communities all across the country,” he said. “Everyone has a stake in our response, including our court systems. Just as addiction is complicated, so, too, is recovery – but we know that it is possible. Connecting people to care is important with any chronic condition, but it’s crucial when the individual is battling an opioid use or other substance use disorder. The earlier that connection is made, the better.”
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, including family and bankruptcy courts.
“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,” Chief Justice Rush said. “It’s crucial that judges are involved in reversing this epidemic.”
According to the report, state courts must:
- Embrace medicated-assisted treatment, which involves using federally approved medications as well as counseling and behavioral therapies to treat those with substance use disorders;
- Partner with state lawmakers, federal agencies and executive branches;
- Realize that the most significant impact of the epidemic involves cases with children and families; and
- Design programs that can also be used for the next substance abuse addiction crisis.
“For years, the justice system knew how to be tough on drugs,” Tate said. “Now is the time for us to become smart’ on drugs.”
The task force was established in 2017 by the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators as the opioid epidemic increasingly impacted state courts.