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Federal push for drug courts mirrors the model in Massachusetts

UMass Medical School manages Center of Excellence for Specialty Courts, charged with training, certification of drug courts

By Megan Bard

UMass Medical School Communications

November 07, 2017
  Ira K. Packer, PhD, clinical professor of psychiatry, serves as director of the Center of Excellence for Specialty Courts.

Ira K. Packer, PhD, serves as director of the Center of Excellence for Specialty Courts.

President Trump’s commission on the opioid crisis will urge the Department of Justice to establish federal drug courts nationwide to better connect addicts with lifesaving treatment, a judicial system Massachusetts has used for years and recently improved with the help of UMass Medical School.

“We are recommending that a drug court be established in every one of the 93 federal district courts in America,” said the Nov. 1 report from the President’s Commission on Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, on which Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker serves. “It is working in our states and can work in our federal system to help treat those who need it and lower the federal prison population. For many people, being arrested and sent to a drug court is what saved their lives, allowed them to get treatment and gave them a second chance.”

The federal commission said state drug courts are known to be significantly more effective than incarceration, but 44 percent of U.S. counties do not have adult drug courts.

“When individuals violate the terms of probation or parole with substance use, they need to be diverted to drug court, rather than back to incarceration,” the report says.

In Massachusetts, a UMass Medical School team is supporting the trial court system by helping to train drug court teams and work with the Executive Office of the Trial Court in its certification process for drug courts.

Ira K. Packer, PhD, clinical professor of psychiatry, serves as director of the Center of Excellence for Specialty Courts, which was established in 2014 to aid the Trial Court in its efforts to implement uniform and best practices for specialty courts. Working closely with the Trial Court, the Department of Public Health and the Department of Mental Health, the center provides resources and technical assistance to foster use of evidence-based practices in existing specialty courts throughout the commonwealth. In July 2017, the Trial Court extended the contract with UMMS for an additional three years to manage the center.

Dr. Packer said the federal commission’s recommendation could help bolster the ongoing trial court initiative.

“The emphasis at the national level, and the increased public perception that these efforts are worthwhile, may help to persuade stakeholders in Massachusetts of the drug courts’ usefulness,” he said. Additionally, there may be more federal funds available to aid in development and enhancement of drug courts in Massachusetts, he said.

Specialty courts are court sessions that provide court-supervised probation and mandated treatment focused on treating the mental health or substance abuse issues underlying criminal behavior. Massachusetts has four types of specialty court sessions: drug courts, mental health courts, veterans’ treatment courts and homeless courts. There are 45 specialty courts in Massachusetts, including 30 drug courts—26 for adults, one for families and three for juveniles.

Regarding the certification process, the Center of Excellence for Specialty Courts has worked collaboratively with the Trial Court to design the certification procedures and develop a review instrument that ensures that individual courts are practicing in conformity with national standards. The certification review is conducted by a team assembled by the court, including a retired judge, a probation officer and a clinician. Additionally, UMMS faculty work with the courts to develop specialized training, including a focus on the biological bases of substance abuse, current standards for treatment of individuals with a substance use disorder and best practices for reducing recidivism.