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Problem-solving courts and overdoses: what the latest research tells us

September 21, 2022

By Bill Raftery

September is National Recovery Month which promotes evidence-based treatment and recovery practices and is the impetus for multiple events and education opportunities. With that comes a renewed focus on how courts can help those with opioid and substance use disorders who come into the criminal justice system. Three new research papers released in the last 6 months can help shed light on what courts are doing and what works.

The first paper, released in September in Drug and Alcohol Dependence Reports explores the effectiveness of problem-solving courts in the reduction of opioid overdose deaths by comparing counties with drug courts versus those without. There is a significant reduction in overdose mortality by 2.9 per 100,000 population per year in areas with drug courts. While the study was limited, it does suggest that substance abuse disorder can be better addressed where there are problem-solving courts.

The second paper, released in August in the Journal of Drug Issues, is based on a survey of almost 900 state and local problem-solving court coordinators and examines the use of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) in their courts. Results of the analyses indicate that MAT availability at the county level is a significant predictor of the likelihood of local courts authorizing MAT. The court's location in a Medicaid expansion state is also a significant predictor of local courts allowing buprenorphine and methadone, but not naltrexone.

The third paper, released in March in Health & Justice examines the question of legal impediments to the use of medications for opioid use disorder (MOUDs) in problem-solving courts. Researchers identified two overarching categories of state laws: 1) laws that prohibit MOUD bans, and 2) laws potentially facilitating access to MOUD. Seven states had laws that prohibit MOUD bans, such as laws prohibiting the exclusion of participants from programs due to MOUD use or limiting the type of MOUD, dose, or treatment duration. Four states had laws that could facilitate access to MOUD, such as requiring courts to make MOUD available to participants. The states and statutes are listed in the paper. Researchers recommend, given the wide differences in state laws on the subject, the creation of model state legislation to ensure consistency in MOUD policies across the nation.

For those interested in additional information, the National Center’s National Judicial Opioid Task Force Resource Center can help provide information on the latest news in the area.

How are courts in your state addressing addiction? Share your experiences with us at Knowledge@ncsc.org or call 800-616-6164. Follow the National Center for State Courts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Vimeo.