Opioid Courts, What is it?

After the Nave Team went through NARCAN training with ARC Health, our senior Paralegal, Jennifer Bisson wanted to do some more additional research into a specific court for opioid related offenses.

The nation is facing a serious crisis that affects public health, as well as economic and social welfare as every day, more than 130 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids. In 2017, the CDC estimates that 72,287 people died from overdoses and a majority of these deaths, nearly 49,000, were caused by opioids. These overdose numbers make the drug epidemic more deadly than car crashes, AIDS or gun violence, which have never killed as many people in a single year. In New York State alone, there were 3,224 opioid-involved overdose deaths in 2017.

The Unified Court System, however, has been taking steps to ensure they play a leading role in the battle against substance abuse. Over 140 drug treatment courts have been developed across the state since 1995, which offer court-supervised treatment and support services for individuals involved in the justice system. More recently, in 2016, the Unified Court System launched an opioid court in Buffalo, New York. This was the first court of its kind in the entire country. Since 2016, a number of other Opioid Treatment Courts variations have launched across the state.

Opioid treatment courts provide immediate intervention, treatment and supervision for defendants who are at high-risk of an opioid overdose. Additionally all court officers are trained to administer naloxone (NARCAN), a drug that reverses the effect of overdose from opioids. The Unified Court System has developed the following 10 essential elements that all local courts incorporate into their practices:

  1. Immediate Screening and Assessment – A trained member of the court staff will use court developed screening tools to assess all defendants of their risk for overdose. If an individual is found to be of high risk, they are flagged for opioid court and immediately receive a biophysical screening and transfer to treatment provider.
  2. Broad Legal Eligibility Criteria – Opioid courts accept both felony charges and misdemeanor charges. To achieve maximum impact it is believed that these courts should be open to as many participants as possible. It should be noted that court operating with federal grant funding are prohibited from use such funds to serve violent offenders.
  3. Universal Access and Transfer of Identified Cases – Defendants who are found eligible to participate should have access to the Opioid Court regardless of place of arrest or court where their charges have been filed. Transfer protocols should be developed to facilitate transfer of cases to opioid courts.
  4. Suspension of Prosecution During Stabilization – By having prosecutors agree to suspend prosecution of the case during participation in opioid court, the court and the defendant can focus on the defendant’s immediate need for stabilization through detoxification and treatment. However, if the defendant fails to comply with the terms of the program or after participation is complete, the prosecution of the case can resume.
  5. Rapid Engagement in Evidence Based Treatment – All treatment needs to be evidence based and should commence without delay. The treatment provider is to use a comprehensive clinical assessment to generate an individualized treatment plan, this should include an assessment of mental health, trauma and other issues.
  6. Utilize Recovery Advocates and Family Support Navigators – Opioids courts will partner with recovery advocates to help engage participants in the program. Recovery advocates significantly improve success and retention in treatment. Family support navigators serve the family members that have been impacted by substance use.
  7. Frequent Judicial Supervision – Opioid courts require defendants to make appearances in court frequently for supervision and monitoring. Participants in court, are drug tested at each appearance, as well as randomly by their treatment provider, and the judges will use motivational interviewing to engage participants in conversation about progress being made.
  8. Intensive Case Management – Case managers who are employed by the court or a partner agency are assigned to help ensure that defendants have all the necessary support systems during their stabilization period.
  9. Opportunities for Continuing Care – Participants in Opioid Treatment Courts typically will need ongoing care after they leave the program and are offered continuing care planning during the program and many times will be referred to a traditional drug court or mental health court for long-term treatment and supervision.
  10. Performance Evaluation and Program Improvements – Opioid courts collect data regarding participants and analyze it on a regular basis to identify gaps and make program improvements.

The hope and intent of the Opioid Treatment Court model is that by linking those impacted by opioid use disorder to immediate treatment, lives can be saved, families can be supported, and communities can be strengthened.