National report says local courts must be leaders in battling opioid epidemic

INDIANAPOLIS-- The National Judicial Opioid Task Force (NJOTF) released its final report on Wednesday, outlining the need for local judges to engage in resilience and recovery efforts to battle the opioid epidemic from their own courtrooms.

Indiana Chief Justice Loretta H. Rush co-chaired the task force, which spent two years creating best practices, tools and resources for judges to tackle cases involving addiction. The task force was comprised of 34 state court leaders representing 24 states.

Chief Justice Rush says the report really shows that the people deciding on criminal cases involving drugs should also be ordering well-informed services for those battling substance abuse problems.

“Our country continues to be in the throws of a huge public health crisis: the opioid epidemic. In Indiana, we’ve only seen a slight decrease in deaths but I get the statistics from St. Joseph County and I still see overdoses on an almost weekly basis,” Chief Justice Rush said. “Courts are dealing with people struggling with addictions with compassion as we would other people struggling with chronic treatable diseases.”

The four main findings in the report, called "Courts as Leaders in the Crisis of Addiction," are:

  • There is a lack of education about the use of quality, evidence-based treatment including medication-based treatment (MAT)
  • 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
  • State courts must design programs and resources that will be effective responses to the next addiction crisis, not just opioids

The task force was established in 2017 as the opioid epidemic moved from being viewed mainly as a criminal justice issue to impacting all levels of the justice system, including divorce, custody, foster care, and bankruptcy courts.

Chief Justice Rush says that nearly all courts in the state, and across the country, are seeing the trickle-down affects from cases involving addiction and the report released Wednesday is a step towards enabling local judges to be hands-on in getting people the treatment they need to defeat addiction.

“We know how to lock people up. We’ve been doing that for years. We know how to be tough on drugs but where are the tools for state courts to become smart on drugs? What do you do with a pregnant woman who is using, when is medication-based treatment the presumption for opioid use disorder, how do you deal with children who have been pulled from their families based on parental substance abuse, what parenting program works, how do you talk about addiction in your court, how do you deal with the stigma of addiction,” Chief Justice Rush said.

The report's release is accompanied by a list of tools and resources for local courts to utilize like creating localized task forces, policies for using naloxone to reverse overdoses, tools screening for substance abuse disorders, methods for working in underserved communities and more.

For next steps, Chief Justice Rush says the report is full of recommendations and action items for judges to take to become leaders in battling the opioid epidemic in their own communities.

"What works in St. Joseph County might not work in Jennings or Scott County," Chief Justice Rush said.

To read the full report, click here.

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