The Development and Implementation of Specialty Courts in Massachusetts
by Judge Mary Hogan Sullivan
Voice of the Judiciary
Twenty years ago, then-Attorney General Janet Reno was instrumental in establishing the first drug court in the United States in Miami-Dade County, Florida. With financial support from the federal government, as well as technical assistance in the form of training for drug court teams, drug courts were established throughout the country. The judicial branch in many states systematically incorporated drug courts into their courts’ operations.
The situation was somewhat different in Massachusetts. Drug courts began where an individual judge undertook to join with an individual probation officer and other team members to start a drug court in a single court in the District and Boston Municipal Court Departments. There was no state-wide organized approach to setting up drug courts.
Meanwhile, the national drug court movement was expanding and refining its approach and purpose. Data collection was a key requirement of existing drug courts. As a result, successful strategies were identified and promulgated; ineffective approaches were eliminated or modified to improve results. The ten key components of drug courts were developed. From these components, a series of best practices were developed. The ultimate goal of drug courts was, and is, to break the cycle of substance-addicted individuals committing crimes, serving a sentence, committing a new crime, serving another sentence, and so on. The method of accomplishing this goal is to target high risk, high need defendants, sentence them to intensive probation supervision, mandate substance use disorder treatment, require frequent and random drug testing, and bring them before the same judge on a weekly or bi-weekly basis for support and accountability.
The data collected over the past twenty years has been subjected to meta-analysis. The evidence supports the conclusion that drug courts which target the correct participants, operate with a full team, conduct staffing, and impose appropriate sanctions and rewards, are successful in reducing recidivism.
What differentiates a drug court session from a regular criminal session in the district or municipal court? A drug court session utilizes a team approach to a targeted population of offenders. It requires intensive probation supervision, which includes mandatory substance use disorder treatment, frequent and random testing, and home visits. It enhances accountability by requiring weekly or bi-weekly court appearances before a single judge who directly interacts with the defendant and utilizes a system of graduated sanctions and incentives.
The proven success of drug courts nationally led to the creation of other specialty courts, including mental health courts, veterans’ treatment courts, prostitution courts, and homelessness courts. These courts target a specific population, and take certain components of the drug courts and apply them to the needs and circumstances of the targeted population. For example, a participant in a mental health session may be required to keep appointments with mental health providers, take prescribed medications, report on a weekly basis to probation, and be paired with a peer supporter in the community as conditions of participation in the mental health court session. Successful completion of the court results in a beneficial outcome of the criminal case, such as dismissal or reduction of the charges.
In 2013, the Massachusetts Trial Court adopted a strategic plan which outlines the Court’s goals for the next ten years. Key among its recommendations is the establishment of a cohesive approach to specialty courts. The Trial Court has defined specialty courts as follows:
Specialty courts are specialized court sessions which target individuals with underlying medical, mental health, substance use and other issues that contribute to these individuals coming before the court with greater frequency. Specialty court sessions promote improved outcomes which reduce recidivism and enhance public safety by integrating treatment and services with judicial case oversight and intensive court supervision.
The Trial Court’s strategic plan envisions that all residents will have access to appropriate specialty courts regardless of court jurisdiction, and that all high need and at-risk communities either have a specialty court or are part of a regionalized court resource model.
To this end, the Trial Court requested and received funding from the Legislature to establish new specialty courts. This funding includes allocations for probation officers and drug testing as well as funding for the Trial Court’s justice partners in the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services of the Department of Public Health, the Department of Mental Health, and the Department of Veterans Services. In the current fiscal year, new drug courts have opened or will open in the District Courts in Dudley, Lowell, Fall River, Brockton and in Taunton Juvenile Court. This will bring the total number of drug courts in Massachusetts to thirty-five. In addition, the total number of mental health court sessions will increase from five to seven, and two additional Veterans Treatment Courts will open. The Trial Court intends to request similar funding from the legislature for FY 2016 to add an equivalent number of specialty courts. The Trial Court’s ultimate goal is to double the number of specialty courts by 2017.
A key component of the expansion effort is training and technical assistance to judges, probation officers, and other justice partners. Utilizing funds from a Bureau of Justice Assistance grant, several state-wide trainings have occurred. Here, clinicians and treatment providers as well as judges, probation officers, and court staff learn the latest information concerning the science of addiction, mental illness, and brain functioning, modalities of treatment, and effective supervision techniques. The grant also provided the foundation for the establishment of a Center of Excellence for Specialty Courts.
Recently, the Trial Court has partnered with the University of Massachusetts Medical School to formalize the Trial Court’s Center of Excellence for Specialty Courts. The purpose of the Center of Excellence is to standardize proven best practices for the operation of specialty courts and to assist the Trial Court in a certification process for specialty courts. The Center of Excellence will also encourage innovative practices, support effective data collection to inform the development of best practices, and assist in ongoing training of specialty court staff and their partners.
The expansion of specialty courts throughout the Commonwealth reflects a recognition by the leadership of the Judicial Branch that the court system is called upon to address issues of mental illness, substance use disorder, and trauma in the context of criminal cases each day, and that public safety requires that the courts’ response to these issues be informed. As Chief Justice Gants said in his State of the Judiciary Address on October 16, 2014: “We need our sentences not merely to punish and deter, but also to provide offenders with the supervision and the tools they will need to maximize the chance of success upon release and minimize the likelihood of recidivism. And we need to ensure that our sentences are hand-crafted to accomplish that. This means harnessing the social science that can provide us guidance, taking advantage of the knowledge and experience of our judges and probation officers, and learning from the successes and failures of the Federal government and the other 49 states.”
The Honorable Mary Hogan Sullivan is the Director of Specialty Courts for the District Court Department of the Massachusetts Trial Court. She established the Norfolk County Veterans Treatment Court, the first of its kind in Massachusetts. Judge Sullivan was appointed to the bench in 2001 and currently presides in the Norfolk County Veteran’s Court.