This past year, we witnessed a proliferation of substance abuse emergencies in our communities, prompting the Governor to declare a public health emergency. At the same time, our understanding of best treatment both scientifically and criminally continues to evolve. Thus, we are pleased to see the response of our government, which has come together across branches and politics to make some major changes in an attempt to address the problem. Through the budget, legislation, and judicial innovation, the Commonwealth is taking on this issue in new and creative ways.
We noted in our budget updates that the Trial Court’s budget request included a $2.7 million “module” for the creation of specialty courts. Although the final budget was about $3 million below the Trial Court’s $615 million request, it specifically included funding earmarked for this project. In fact, this module was provided for in each step of the budget process across the Executive and Legislative branches – first by the Governor, next by the House and Senate, and finally in the Conference Committee budget signed by the Governor. The Senate even called for an additional $300,000 in funding beyond the Trial Court’s request to help fund continuing examination and analysis of specialty court functioning.
At the end of formal session, the legislature passed its own measures to combat drug abuse in the bill S2142, An Act to increase opportunities for long-term substance abuse recovery, which Governor Patrick signed into law on August 6th. The bill is intended to prevent drug abuse by increasing oversight on prescriptions while also making treatment easier to obtain and afford. Most notably, the bill includes provisions requiring insurance providers to cover deterrent drug products and substance abuse treatment in some cases. Other parts of the bill increase oversight and monitoring of patients prescribed certain drugs and require coroners to report opioid-related deaths to the Department of Public Health (DPH) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In addition, the bill gives DPH new authority to monitor potentially dangerous substances. Although the bill costs $20 million and caused some concerns for insurance companies, it passed with bipartisan support and has been touted as a potential model for federal legislation.
Around the same time the bill was passed, the Trial Court announced its plans to open a new specialty drug court in Brockton, funded by the $2.7 module appropriated by the legislature. BBA President Paul T. Dacier examined the specialty court system and drug courts in particular this year. In his blog, he notes that the specialty court model achieved remarkable results nationwide, reducing recidivism and helping people recover from addiction. Specialty Court sessions feature judges trained and peer-reviewed in handling certain issues. The Courts focus on rehabilitative treatment programs and probation, sometimes lasting up to two years. This approach has resulted in seventy-five percent of rehabilitation program graduates remaining arrest-free two years out of the program – quite an achievement, especially considering that Specialty Courts handle the cases of those individuals considered most at risk of recidivism.
While the issue of substance abuse is extremely complex and constantly changing, we were pleased to see – from the budget, to a bill, to the execution of specialty courts – that each branch came together in an attempt to solve a problem and improve the lives of people in Massachusetts.
– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association