Mental Health Courts: Providing Access to Treatment, Restoration of Human Dignity and Recovery with JusticePosted: October 25, 2016
Voice of the Judiciary
A mental health court is a specialty court whose purpose is to serve mentally ill criminal offenders in the early stages of the criminal process by offering a diversionary program of treatment and strict supervision instead of arrest and detention. It is a collaborative effort between the criminal justice and the mental health treatment systems intended to improve the quality of life of individuals with severe mental illness by providing access to comprehensive services instead of incarceration and to improve public safety by reducing recidivism.
Although it is undisputed that mental Illness rarely leads directly to criminal behavior, many mentally ill people find themselves in court facing criminal complaints when their behaviors become threatening, aggressive or dangerous to themselves or others. The use of substances such as alcohol and illegal drugs to self-medicate by the mentally ill populace further increases the likelihood of court involvement.
Experience shows that for individuals with severe mental illness, brief periods of custodial detention tend to exacerbate symptoms associated with depression, paranoia and anxiety. Often individuals have difficulty complying with standard reporting requirements imposed by probationary terms or conditions of release while awaiting trial. Those individuals can be disorganized and overwhelmed by the demands of daily living due to their mental illness. The end result often is a cycle of arrest, incarceration, release and re-arrest with little hope of recovery or successful integration into the community. National and state evidence reveals a disproportionate number of individuals with some form of mental illness within the justice system as compared with the general population.
The creation and development of mental health courts in the Commonwealth is due in large part to the vision of retired Judge Maurice Richardson coupled with a generous private grant from the Sidney Baer Foundation (http://www.baerfoundation.com). Judge Richardson recognized the cycle of court involvement for those suffering from a mental illness and the overriding need for a collaborative approach between the behavioral health system and courts to effectuate improved outcomes. The importance of the role of the Sidney Baer Foundation in combating mental health issues cannot be overstated. Sidney Baer was a member of a wealthy and prominent family from the Midwest. While studying at Yale University, Sidney suffered a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He never graduated from Yale due to the challenges and obstacles that his mental illness presented. With the help and advice of his friend and personal lawyer, Attorney George Handran, he established the Sidney Baer Foundation for the purpose of alleviating the suffering and loss of opportunities endured by the mentally ill. In 2007, in concert with the Boston Medical Center, the Trial Court received initial funding from the Baer Foundation and established the first mental health court in the Commonwealth in the Boston Municipal Court. http://www.baerfoundation.com/
There are presently seven mental health courts operating in the Commonwealth. The Boston Municipal Court Department holds weekly sessions in the Central, Roxbury and West Roxbury Court Divisions. The District Court Department operates mental health courts in Springfield, Cambridge, Plymouth and Quincy Courts.
Each court utilizes a team based and problem solving approach. The judge, probation officer, mental health clinician, prosecutor and defense attorney maintain their distinct roles, but work in a collaborative effort to monitor the individual participant’s progress in adhering to the terms of probation, in securing and maintaining treatment and in achieving recovery.
Eligibility for participation differs to a small degree among the mental health courts in the Commonwealth. Some Courts will accept defendants pre-trial with untried open matters. Several courts require a post disposition probationary status. Participation is voluntary. The Judge has authority to return the case to the traditional court system when there is a breach by the defendant of the program’s policies.
The process begins by a referral to the mental health court session. After consultation with a mental health clinician and the probation officer, eligibility is determined based upon the nature and circumstances of the offense, a psychiatric diagnosis, history of mental health treatment and the willingness of the participant to accept treatment and participate in the session. The clinician will then make a recommendation to the judge. Once accepted, each participant receives an individualized treatment plan. The participant is required to return to the court session regularly for a remedial review of the effectiveness of the participant’s individualized treatment plan and an evaluation by the court of any obstacles and impediments that interfere with the participant’s ability to receive and maintain mental health treatment. This ‘holistic’ approach is an important component to the session and it reinforces the message of the court to all participants that their lives have value and that the court is an invested partner in their recovery efforts.
CPCS Attorney David Shea, a public defender and mental health court practitioner maintains that, ”Criminal cases often implicate serious collateral consequences-apart from potential incarceration-including housing, employment, education, and child custody problems…….Many clients find this holistic approach novel to a courtroom setting and the result is a dynamic that often engenders a powerful motivator; hope.”
Presently, there are over 200 defendants participating in mental health courts in the Commonwealth. 25 % are female and 75% are male. Over 60 % of the participants report a co-occurring substance use disorder and over 50% report a history of homelessness. The most common mental health diagnoses are bipolar, schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. The racial breakdown of participants is 47% white and 37% black. From June 2015 to June 2016, 40% of the participants successfully completed the mental health court program. The average length of participation in a mental health session is 9-12 months.
It is evident that the future of mental health courts in the Commonwealth will see increased participation due to the Trial Court’s recognition of the importance of addressing the unique and specialized needs of the mentally ill. To that end, the Trial Court has engaged in a state wide ‘Community Justice Project’ to identify resources and programs that will divert individuals diagnosed with a mental illness or substance use disorder at key events or ‘intercepts’ from the justice system and direct them to behavioral health treatment. By acknowledging the benefits of treatment and rehabilitation in lieu of incarceration, the mental health courts extend a compassionate alternative and instill a sense of hope in a vulnerable population.
The success of mental health courts can best be summed up by the words of a recent graduate from the West Roxbury Court’s ‘Recovery with Justice Program’. He told the court, “This program has broken the chains that kept pulling me back to jail. Thank you for giving me back my life. With the treatment you have helped me get, I now have hope that I will be able to work and be a part of my daughter’s life and I will stay out of trouble. “
Appointed to the bench in 1993 b y Governor William Weld, Judge Kathleen Coffey has been First Justice of the West Roxbury Court for the past nineteen years. She is the Director of Specialty Courts for the Boston Municipal Court Department. In 2007, she established the first Mental Health Court, and in 2010, the Homeless Court held at the Pine Street Inn.
Voice of the Judiciary
Our country has been at war for almost 15 years. Deployments take a toll on soldiers and their families. Some get arrested because they suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress or traumatic brain injury and they self-medicate with alcohol and/or drugs. If those defendants are within the Boston Municipal Court Department (BMC) jurisdiction, the Boston Veterans Treatment Court (BVTC) may be an alternative to the regular court trial track.
I served as a Navy Intelligence Officer and had the honor of being attached to Special Operations Command, Korea (SOCKOR). My husband Richard Sinnott, a private attorney practicing in Boston, is a Lieutenant Colonel Judge Advocate in the Army Reserve. He deployed to Kuwait in 2003. My familiarity with military culture both by being a military officer and the spouse of a deployed soldier, and having worked with combat veterans, helps in my interactions with and understanding of veterans as the presiding judge of the BVTC.
Why do I say BVTC “may” be an alternative?
The BVTC focuses on high risk/high needs veterans facing serious charges where there is a nexus between their current problem and their military experience. Individual treatment plans are created for them and each veteran is assigned a mentor. Because the program is usually about
18 months of probation and involves intensive treatment and monitoring, it may not be appropriate for a veteran facing less serious charges.
Probation (which is often pretrial probation), consists of weekly court appearances that taper as the veteran progresses through five phases. Once a treatment plan is established, each week the veteran is tested for drugs and alcohol, must attend three Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings each week, meet weekly with a probation officer and have mentor contact.
How does a veteran get considered for the BVTC?
If a veteran is arraigned in the BMC Central Division, the case is automatically scheduled for the earliest Friday in the BVTC, for assessment of eligibility. If a veteran is arraigned in one of the other BMC divisions, the veteran’s attorney submits a referral and the case is scheduled for a status date in that same division 4 weeks later. During that time, the veteran is told to visit a BVTC session, given the participant handbook, and a clinical evaluation is scheduled to assess whether there is a nexus between their military service and current case and whether the BVTC can provide the appropriate treatment. (http://www.mass.gov/courts/docs/specialty-courts/veterans-treatment-court-referral-form-boston.pdf)
Because the BVTC session is a voluntary program, the veteran then has the option to opt in or go the normal trial track.
What are the benefits to the veteran?
For most defendants, their cases will resolve by dismissal. Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley supports such resolutions because, in his own words: “Veterans are asked to fight and die in defense of their country. But many aren’t given the tools to readjust to peacetime lives. As a result, they’re at a much greater risk of unemployment, substance abuse, and untreated mental illness, which all contribute to increased contact with the criminal justice system. So with Veterans Court, our goal is to help defendants overcome those challenges rather than be overcome by them.” Dismissals give them a better chance at employment and other opportunities. Most importantly, the veterans receive treatment monitoring and support in areas such as housing, employment, possible upgrades in military discharge status, and legal assistance in civil matters.
Who is on the treatment team and why should I trust that they would know what is best for the veteran?
Most team members have extensive military backgrounds and are committed to the BVTC mission: To provide veterans whose underlying service related challenges brought them into the justice system – with a tailored but flexible supervised treatment program that restores their dignity and pride and returns them to being law abiding, productive members of civilian society.
A unique and essential aspect of veterans courts is peer mentoring, described by Judge Robert Russell of New York, as the “secret sauce” for the success of veterans courts. Don Purington is the peer specialist/mentor coordinator for the BVTC and oversees mentoring for all five veterans courts in Massachusetts. Although he is the assigned mentor to several BVTC veterans, he is an unofficial mentor to them all.
Mr. Purington’s story is one of redemption. He is a combat veteran who served in the United States Marine Corps from 2005 – 2009 as a fire team leader and squad leader during combat operations in Iraq in 2006. Upon discharge, Mr. Purington was addicted to opiates and began breaking the law to obtain drugs. After detoxing in a jail cell, he was offered the opportunity for treatment and help putting his life back on track. He received inpatient treatment for more than a year and was able to move past his legal issues. A veteran served as a mentor to Mr. Purington, which started him on his path to working with veterans.
Mr. Purington connects with BVTC veterans by sharing his journey, which is a source of strength for them. As he explains: “Some of the most comforting words to someone who is at rock bottom are ‘I understand what you are going through.’ Had I not gotten the mentor that I did and the opportunity to get the help I needed I would be either dead or in jail. It has been 6 years since I started my journey of sobriety and I will continue to use my mistakes to try and help others.” A BVTC veteran described him as “… the most inspirational and biggest positive influence of them all. He is truly like a big brother to me, blood or not. I sincerely love and appreciate this man for everything! … I really hated disappointing him more than anyone.”
The gateway to the BVTC is through probation officer Geri Jurczak (email@example.com). After receiving the one page referral, the eligibility assessment begins. As part of that process, the veterans are drug and alcohol tested and must abide by the program requirements. Ms. Jurczak conducts home visits and offers referrals to the veterans’ families as needed. A veteran described his experience with Ms. Jurczak like this:
… I have been on probation once before and it made me feel as if I was being set-up for failure … [Ms. Jurczak] was the complete opposite of what I believed a probation officer to be… She was there for me whenever I had struggles or problems. … She was a huge part of my success and I owe her more than I can give. BVTC is very unorthodox compared to conventional courtrooms because they recognize the need to help veterans returning home from combat. It takes a very special person … to work with combat veterans. … I will forever be grateful for her help in bettering my life.
Suffolk Assistant District Attorney Brett Walker (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is assigned to the BVTC. A West Point graduate and a Ranger, who was awarded two Bronze Stars, ADA Walker has served for 12 years as a light infantry officer in the U.S. Army and the Massachusetts National Guard. An Army Major, he has deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. He makes a habit of shaking hands with the defendants at each session.
Attorney Vanesa Velez of the Committee on Public Counsel Services (CPCS) regularly represents BVTC veterans (email@example.com). While providing zealous advocacy she understands the BVTC treatment approach.
Thomas Palladino, a licensed social worker, is the BVTC Veterans Justice Outreach Coordinator. He creates the treatment plans and is responsible for the initial assessments and continuing case management. The team meets weekly before the regular Friday session. Because the BVTC is a high risk, high needs court, Mr. Palladino frequently makes last minute changes to treatment plans. He has found immediate placement in detox or residential treatment programs when veterans have been in crisis.
All combat veterans can obtain VA benefits through the Boston Vet Center. Amy Bonneau, a Captain in the Massachusetts National Guard, who deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan in 2010, is a licensed social worker and works as a readjustment counselor at the Boston Vet Center.
John Quinn is a Veteran Outreach Coordinator for the Home Base Program (http://homebase.org) – a partnership with the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital, which provides eligible veterans with world-class clinical care, fitness, wellness and family counseling. Mr. Quinn proudly served in the 101st Airborne Division, U.S. Army Military Police.
Paul Connor, a Captain in the Army National Guard, assists the BVTC with veterans who suffer a severe relapse. Early this year, Mr. Connor was asked by Sheriff Peter Koutoujian to implement the first Massachusetts correctional unit for incarcerated veterans or pretrial detainees. The Middlesex County Sheriff’s Housing Unit for Military Veterans (HUMV) allows veterans to share experiences and offers programs tailored to them.
The final team member is Assistant Clerk Magistrate Christopher Phillips, who served in the Marine Corps from 1984 –1997 and is currently a judge advocate major in the Army Reserve.
Judge Eleanor C. Sinott is the presiding judge of the Boston Veterans Treatment Court.
Voice of the Judiciary
The Homeless Court is a specialty court or ‘problem solving’ court established in 2010 at the West Roxbury Division of the Boston Municipal Court. It addresses the needs of individuals who are residents of the Pine Street Inn and area shelters within the City of Boston and who have open default warrants for misdemeanor and low level felonies in all courts throughout the Commonwealth. This justice initiative is based upon the premise that there is room for treatment, compassion and for recovery within the court system. It recognizes that homelessness presents a complicated challenge to the courts demanding alternative approaches in the administration of justice. The court seeks to make the justice system more accessible, accountable and responsive to the needs and challenges faced by this most vulnerable population.
The Homeless Court is modeled after a court program started in San Diego, California for homeless veterans in 1989. Homeless courts currently operate in Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, New Orleans, Louisiana, and Houston, Texas. This initiative in Massachusetts began as a collaborative effort of attorneys from the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) and from District Attorney Daniel Conley’s office, and representatives from the Lemuel Shattuck Shelter and court leaders. In the past four years, the Homeless Court has grown to encompass the Pine Street Inn and other area shelters within the City of Boston including Woods Mullen Shelter and St. Francis House. Homeless Court is commonly called “The Court of Second Chances” because it recognizes the importance and value of a ‘second chance’ and rewards those individuals who have demonstrated a commitment to change self-destructive behaviors that led to criminal activity by participating in substance abuse and mental health treatment and maintaining recovery through job training programs and employment. Lyndia Downie, the President and executive Director of the Pine Street Inn since 2001, embraces the concept of offering a second chance to her residents but recognizes that in Homeless Court, “No one is given a free pass; rather, they are just given a chance to rebuild their lives.”
The Problem: Challenges of the Homeless within the Criminal Justice System
The homeless population presents unique needs and challenges to the criminal justice system due in large part to the financial and social instability in the individual’s life and the concomitant personal issues that caused them to become homeless. It is evident that there is a far greater likelihood that a homeless individual will enter the criminal justice system than a housed individual. Experience shows that street violence and the widespread abuse of alcohol and drugs among the homeless population further increases the likelihood of an unfavorable police encounter. Mental health illnesses including depression, anxiety, and paranoia often plague men and women whose dignity, self-worth and identity have been eroded by the loss of a permanent home, employment and family support. Without proper medical treatment and social service interventions, the homeless find that the illnesses routinely spiral into criminal conduct and the consequential effects of arrest and detention instead of treatment and recovery.
Once a person is arrested and charged with a crime, the homeless individual is typically unable to navigate the court system. Confronted with the havoc and instability of living on the streets, homeless men and women are unable and often unwilling to comply with legal obligations and court orders. The homeless population lacks the standard ‘roots in the community,’ such as employment, residence, and family ties, that are contemplated in the bail statute and weighed by a judge or magistrate in determining bail and conditions of release. Default warrants are a chronic occurrence within the homeless population.
The immediate procedural consequence of an outstanding default warrant for a homeless person is the threat of arrest and incarceration. However, the collateral consequences of a default warrant are extensive. Default warrants interfere with a person’s eligibility to receive permanent housing,employment and can effectually bar placement in residential substance abuse treatment programs.
The consequences of default warrants on the homeless are compounded by the reluctance and fear of an individual to go to court to have the warrants removed. The failure to return to court to address an outstanding warrant increases the likelihood that a defendant will be held on bail. This cycle of arrest, detention, default, re-arrest on the warrant and further periods of detention, unfortunately often perpetuates the despair of the homeless population and reinforces ingrained suspicion and distrust towards the police and the court system.
Default warrants also inadvertently result in the victimization of the homeless. In many instances, an individual who knows that there is a warrant for his or her arrest, avoids all reckoning with the police. Similarly, a homeless person who is a victim of a crime is much less likely to seek help and relief from law enforcement officials if the threat of an arrest on a default warrant is imminent.
The Solution: Homeless Court, “The Court of Second Chances”
The fundamental difference between a traditional court and the Homeless Court is that the Homeless Court works with people who have already changed the behavior that led to their involvement with the criminal justice system. It has been described as a progressive plea bargaining system characterized by alternative sentencing
In the traditional judicial setting, the court requires the defendant to promise to change his or her behaviors while on probation. The primary incentive for a defendant’s compliance with the judge’s order is the threat of revocation of probation and incarceration. However, to be eligible to participate in the Homeless Court, an individual must have already completed a substance abuse program or be actively participating in mental health treatment and job training. All of these efforts and achievements occur prior to the Homeless Court hearing. In essence, the individual has already ‘repaid his debt to society’ and has fulfilled the conditions of probation that a judge would ordinarily impose.
During the Homeless Court session, social workers and case managers attest to the individual’s accomplishments and present the specific obstacles that the participants have had to overcome. After reviewing documented letters of support and the sworn testimony of the treatment providers who have monitored the individual’s achievements and progress, the Court is able to remove default warrants, remit outstanding court fees and dismiss cases. During the hearing, participants are recognized for their effort and resiliency in overcoming the stigma, isolation and diminished opportunity caused by their homeless condition and are provided a much coveted and well deserved ‘second chance’ to escape the boundaries of homelessness through permanent housing, employment and stability.
A critical component of the Homeless Court session is the spirit of cooperation and collaboration among the justice partners. Prior to scheduling a matter before the court, all cases are reviewed and vetted by the District Attorney and the participant’s CPCS counsel. If a prosecutor objects to the dismissal or termination of a case, the defendant would not be eligible to participate in the Homeless Court session. When a default warrant has been issued for non-compliance of a judicial order of probation, the supervising probation officer is given an opportunity to express his opinion regarding the progress and suitability of the probationer and suitability for the session. Additionally, as noted, eligibility for the initiative is limited to misdemeanor offenses and non-violent low level felonies.
Under the progressive leadership of Chief Justice of the Trial Court Paula Carey, the Homeless Court’s jurisdiction has been expanded. Currently, an outstanding warrant in any Municipal and District Court for a Pine Street Inn or area shelter resident may be addressed in the Homeless Court session in Boston. All Homeless Court sessions are held at the Pine Street Inn on the third Thursday of every month. Each participant’s progress is reviewed in open court. The participants are encouraged to share their life stories. For many it is an opportunity for reconciliation with a court system that they feared for years and struggled to avoid. Three hundred and eighty three defendants have been referred for participation and have met with a CPCS attorney. One hundred and one homeless individuals have successfully met the requirements of treatment and recovery and have participated in the Homeless Court.
Many of the justice partners and social service providers maintain that the numbers alone do not adequately measure the effect and the impact that the Homeless Court has had on the lives and futures of the homeless within the City of Boston. CPCS Attorney William Lane, who has represented many defendants in the session, notes that,
“Homeless Court reinforces in our homeless community that they matter, that they have value and that they deserve to have their dignity recognized and honored. Homeless clients are excluded people almost everywhere they go, but in Homeless Court, they are told they deserve the dignity of stable, safe and comforting housing, and the Commonwealth and the courts are going to be merciful partners and supporters in that process.”
District Attorney Daniel Conley has been a consistent and steadfast supporter of the Homeless Court since its inception and was instrumental in its development. He maintains that,
“Too often, the criminal justice system is where people end up when other systems and the social safety net fails.Today’s criminal justice system is asked to do far more than it was designed for, but specialty courts show our ability to adapt by helping low-level offenders on the road to recovery and productivity. Homeless Court in particular has a bright future of collaborating with shelters, job training agencies, and other community organizations to reach those with a history of homelessness and enable support, treatment, and stability.The barriers we remove and the progress we help the clients make are rewards that are unlike those in any other specialty court.”
And finally, it should be noted that Homeless Court makes economic and financial sense. In these times of budgetary constraints and reduced judicial resources, the Homeless Court is an excellent example of how collaboration and cooperation among justice partners can create new approaches and dynamic solutions to the rising costs of detention and incarceration. It is a jail diversion initiative that offers a beacon of hope and an end to a cycle of despair and mistrust toward the court system while concurrently providing a second chance for a needy and deserving population to enjoy a stable and productive life.
Appointed to the bench in 1993 by Governor William Weld, Judge Kathleen Coffey has been First Justice of the West Roxbury Court for the past eighteen years. She is the Director of Specialty Courts for the Boston Municipal Court Department. In 2007, she established the Mental Health Court, and in 2010, the Homeless Court.
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.
Voice of the Judiciary
“For four months, I tried to kill myself every day,” Louis ‘Phil’ Theodore recounted to at the Lynn Drug Court graduation ceremony on October 22, 2014 reported by the Lynn Daily Item. “This drug court went to bat for me, they just never gave up. Today I can say I consider myself a citizen.”
The Massachusetts Trial Court has undertaken the initiative to expand the presence of drug courts throughout the state, consistent with the national trend toward evidence-based practices in the criminal justice system. The National Association of Drug Court Professionals indicated in 2010 that more research had been published on the effects of adult drug courts than virtually all other criminal justice programs combined. (Marlowe 2010). According to the United States Bureau of Justice Assistance, evaluation studies consistently show that while offenders are participating in adult drug courts, they are less likely to commit crime, and, consequently, states and localities save money on criminal justice system costs. (BJA citing Government Accountability Office, 2005; Huddleston, Marlowe, & Casebolt, 2008; Marlowe, 2010).
For the judges, clerks, probation officers, police officers, attorneys, and treatment providers who work in drug court sessions, these lofty aspirations are but a backdrop to the intense and daily struggles of the individuals who appear before them. As heroin and opiate overdoses reach epidemic proportions across Massachusetts, the drug courts have become a front line in fighting addiction. For those who work in drug court, drug court goes beyond preventing crime: it is a commitment to saving lives.
“When people first come into drug court, you see them at their worst. They don’t have anybody. They have stolen so much, and lied so much, and manipulated so much, they have burned every bridge they ever had. They are raw, on the street, selling themselves, stealing, living in cars, living in shelters, or lucky to be in jail,” observes Lynn District Court Probation Officer Kelley Montgomery, who has worked in the Lynn drug court for fifteen years. “In drug court they evolve into the person they could have been, had they not gotten into taking drugs in the first place.”
In the City of Lynn, Deputy Police Chief Leonard Desmarais believes that community policing is about fixing problems. “If you’re only working on the symptoms, you’re not fixing the problem. If someone is addicted to heroin, heroin is the most important thing in their life. They’ll commit crimes of opportunity, for which they can and should be arrested. But if we don’t get them off the heroin, we’re not addressing the root cause, and we’re not fixing the problem.” Drug courts in Massachusetts are targeted at intervening in the lives of defendants who have a significant, but non-violent, criminal history. One theory supporting drug court is that targeting resources at this select group of perpetrators will impact crime reduction over all.
“Terry came, and he came with help.” When a recent drug court graduate spoke to the Lynn Drug Court, he was referring to his own arrest by the Lynn Police Department and Lynn District Court Probation Officer Terence Ward. Drug courts have fostered partnerships between local police departments and local probation officers that have strengthened information sharing and warrant response. Probation Officer Terence Ward notes that working closely with the Lynn Police department positively impacts individual probationers, and ultimately lives. “Due to the rise of heroin use and overdoses in our community, the police and the probation department have come closer, to work in concert, to impact drug addicted people who most immediately need help.”
The Lynn Police Department has been an active partner in the Lynn drug court session, bringing important law enforcement resources to bear on integrating drug court participants back into the community, arresting probationers on drug court warrants, and providing treatment information to families and victims of overdoses. “The police are very proactive on this issue,” says Judge James LaMothe, the presiding justice of the Lynn drug court. Judge LaMothe describes a process in which Lynn police officers responding to overdoses takes steps to provide patients and families with information on local treatment and counseling services. An experienced narcotics detective is also a member of the drug court, to be “our eyes and ears on the street, to provide support for drug court participants in the community.”
Substance abuse treatment providers are also invited to drug court sessions, a practice that furthers information sharing goals and provides the court with input on available treatment options. Probation Officer Kelley Montgomery emphasizes the importance of working with treatment provides to develop treatment plans specific to each individual in drug court. “A treatment placement is not just about sticking someone in any bed. Drug court works as a team to find the best possible treatment match for each person. The best match can change over time. Treatment providers have [probation officers’] cell phones and email – there is constant communication.”
The multi-agency involvement in the Lynn drug court highlights issues central to drug court success – the integration of resources and knowledge. Judge LaMothe reflects, “drug court brings together people from all different perspectives – the defense attorneys, the district attorneys, the treatment providers, and law enforcement. Everyone understands the idea is to prevent recidivism. This unified systems approach is what makes drug court work.” Deputy Chief Desmarais sees drug court as an effort to prevent a vicious cycle. “We work hand in hand [with the drug court] because we’re dealing with the same population. If the drug court process is successful for someone, they won’t be an addict, and they’ll stop committing crimes.”
The drug court model adopted by the Massachusetts Trial Court is a post-dispositional model. After a defendant’s criminal case is disposed, usually by way of a guilty plea or a probation surrender, a defendant may be evaluated by the Probation Department for drug court eligibility. This process may be initiated by the defense attorney, but not exclusively. Often the presiding judge or probation officer will be familiar with the defendant and his or her history of addiction motivated crime, and will recommend a screening for drug court participation.
Melrose defense attorney Thomas Belmonte has been representing clients in the Cambridge District drug court for ten years. He indicates that success in drug court requires a level of commitment from the client to make sobriety a life priority. “Serving time doesn’t treat the underlying problem. That’s the reality. Drug court is not for everyone. The client has to express an interest in wanting to change their circumstances, deal with their addiction and their recidivism. A less structured probation doesn’t necessarily prevent a return to the criminal justice system. A highly structured program like drug court provides an opportunity more comprehensive in nature. Building life skills, sobriety skills, building a sense of responsibility – that’s developed through the residential treatment and counseling drug court offers.”
A defendant must enter into drug court voluntarily. The drug court model integrates treatment and services with judicial case oversight and intensive court supervision. What this means for individuals in drug court is a rigorous regimen of inpatient treatment, recovery home assignments, and eventual community re-entry. Accountability is central, with regular court appearances and drug screens. “The goal is not short term recovery. The goal is life-long freedom from addiction,” says Marie Burke, Drug Court Coordinator for the District Court. “People can stop using for short periods of time. But drug court is not just about staying clean. It addresses the underlying behaviors and emotions that lead people back to substance abuse. Drug court is about accountability and helping people to make the right choices in life.”
Attorney Belmonte, who takes drug court cases largely on a pro bono basis, emphasizes that drug court cases are very different for defense attorneys than other criminal matters. “These cases are in many ways tougher for a defense attorney than standard probation cases. The attorney spends a lot of time going over the client’s rights, and the court’s access to privileged information, which is necessary to get the best out of the drug court model. The process takes a lot of effort from defense counsel and from the drug court team. And to enter into drug court, there must be acknowledgement by the client that they want to take this step to make significant changes. Drug court is for clients who have a longer view – grasping concepts and building a safety network in their life, that’s paramount. Those are the folks who succeed in the long term.”
For those who work in drug courts, it is about the success stories. Judge LaMothe describes the impact that presiding over the Lynn drug court has had on him personally and professionally. “Drug abuse can rip a family apart. Addicts lie, steal, and completely tear apart the relationships they should hold most dear. Seeing family members invited to a drug court graduation can be the first time that a family is back together. When parents, children, or siblings say, ‘thank you, Judge, for saving this person’s life,’ I tell them, ‘it wasn’t me.’ I didn’t save anyone’s life. The participant did the work. They got themselves clean and sober. We gave them that chance, but they did the work.” Reflecting on the impact of a recent drug court graduation, Probation Officer Terence Ward states, “It is a road to recovery. Seeing someone who graduated a year ago, still clean and sober, come back to talk to other drug court graduates – that’s the reason why I continue to do what I do.”
Sarah Weyland Ellis is the Deputy General Counsel to the Administrative Office of the District Court. She is a graduate of Boston College Law School and Kenyon College.