Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts

National Judicial Opioid Task Force Report: State Courts are Crucial Partners in Addiction Crisis

November 20, 2019

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 H. 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 Chief Justice Rush.

The report was welcomed by the nation’s top public health official, VADM Jerome M. Adams, U.S. Surgeon General, who spoke at the launch of the report in Washington, DC.

“The opioid crisis has ravaged communities all across the country. Everyone has a stake in our response, including our court systems,” said Dr. Adams. “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 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.

“This report is incredibly useful, and also reflects a tremendous level of compassion for those living in communities across America who need our help, said Jim Carroll, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “This succinct report clearly and effectively provides a road map for state and tribal court judges across this country to follow as they work to enable and encourage those suffering from Opioid Use Disorder to seek treatment and pursue recovery.”

 “For years, the justice system knew how to be ‘tough on drugs,’ now is the time for us to become ‘smart’ on drugs,” said task force co-chair Deborah Taylor Tate.

The findings of the report- in addition to an entire peer-reviewed library of resources- include:

  • Lack of access to 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; 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.

Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, Director of the U.S. Office of Drug Control Policy James Carroll, and TN Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts Deborah Taylor Tate