As our coverage of the specialty courts illustrates, there is no “one size fits all” way to handle cases that are deeply rooted in serious issues such as mental health difficulties, substance abuse or addiction, and chronic homelessness. In many cases, these factors are intertwined, complex, and highly individualized to the particular person coming through the courts. This means that the justice system’s approach must be similarly multifaceted and understanding.
Substance abuse struggles or addiction is an underlying factor in a broad range of criminal infractions.. Sentencing a case that involves this issue is highly nuanced. In an effort to be smart on crime rather than simply tough on crime, courts (or judges) can consider treatment options depending on the circumstances of the case.
One option is the use of the Drug Court, a specialty court session of the Trial Court. The Drug Court, like the Mental Health, Homeless, and Veterans Treatment Courts, places participants in probation and treatment programs. The participants are required to provide progress updates to the court to ensure that they are fulfilling their probation terms. This structure ensures both effective treatment and lowered rates of recidivism.
Clearly, the courts have recognized that there is a need for specialization and, in creating the Drug Court, have done an excellent job providing effective guidance and services. Outside of this specialty court session, which is specifically equipped to focus on a particular set of needs, there are ways that other courts can internally raise awareness, education, and the provision of resources to increase their own effectiveness in handling cases with a substance abuse factor. We spoke with Attorney Rick Dyer, who practices in Brighton District Court, a division of the Boston Municipal Court, about the mechanisms his offices and the court have adopted to address this issue without automatic recourse to punishment. Instead, handling cases with an awareness of substance abuse and addiction as possible factors can contribute to a solution through the administration of justice.
Attorney Dyer comes from a unique perspective: an attorney for the past 29 years, he openly shares his own history with addiction and is now a practicing attorney in the same court where he faced sentencing 8 separate times. He truly understands the perspective from both sides of the equation and knows that creating treatment opportunities for these clients is a priority. As an expert in recovery issues and a staunch advocate, he has made recommendations to Chief Justice Paula Carey about how the specialty courts can better serve a population with chronic addiction struggles.
According to Attorney Dyer, the Brighton District Court has seen well over 100 cases in the past year alone that have substance abuse struggles at their core. Firmly rooted in the surrounding community, the court prides itself on focusing on recovery for those who come through its doors struggling with substance abuse, and its main goal is to break the cycle of addiction and thereby reduce recidivism. They also want to reduce the stigma surrounding addiction, using language such as ‘wellness’ and ‘recovery’ programs.
The overarching strategy is preemption and proactivity. For example, having an awareness of the nature of substance abuse struggles allows the opportunity for a pretrial diversion at arraignment in the Brighton District Court. Often, when a defendant struggling with addiction first enters the court system, he or she is going through detoxing and withdrawal. Accessing immediate treatment, which Attorney Dyer and his colleagues attempt whenever possible, has produced high results of success in defendants making it through treatment and probation.
In line with the goal to reach recovery over retribution, Attorney Dyer’s office has taken a unique approach and has made a recovery coach available to help clients access treatment and follow up to prevent related problems, such as homelessness or unemployment. A recovery coach can intervene at the earliest stages of a hearing and help someone appearing before the court to find a bed at a detox facility, which gives the judge more leeway to favor treatment over sentencing and offer opportunities for further treatment down the road. Later, a recovery coach can act as an advocate or provide a favorable status report for a client before the court, and also check in to make sure the client is attending work, their medical appointments, and any other deadlines in treatment programs. There is a sense of both accountability and support.
We applaud the hard work of the legal community to productively seek addiction treatment and recovery for those who need it, both through formal programs like the Drug Court and through systemic education and awareness. Statistics and personal testimony from those deeply involved, such as Attorney Dyer, suggest that it is having a profound effect and improving not only the lives of those who struggle with addiction, but also public safety as recidivism decreases. The best way to build upon this success is to increase understanding and, perhaps more importantly, increase available resources. More beds in detox facilities and more treatment programs will allow greater access for more people over extended periods of time. It is a worthwhile and admirable cause: with such measures in place, we can support our fellow citizens and most vulnerable populations through the remedy of justice.