Hampshire HOPE: Opening a Northampton Treatment Court

Published: 12/24/2019 3:55:37 PM

With the New Year quickly approaching, many of us make certain personal resolutions or promises whether it is to get more exercise, learn a new language or stay in contact with old friends.

At the Northampton District Court, we are excited to announce that we have made a professional resolution to open the Northampton Treatment Court in January 2020. This is the result of many months of meetings and collaboration with local partners including Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan, Hampshire Sheriff Patrick J. Cahillane and area clinicians with the Department of Mental Health.

Why are we opening a Treatment Court and exactly what is it?

We have created this specialty court in recognition that the criminal justice system needs to consider different approaches in working with individuals on probation who are dealing with substance use disorders. The Treatment Court is a special session of the Northampton District Court that promotes sobriety and recovery for individuals for whom substance misuse has been a central factor in their court involvement and a barrier to a healthier life.

The Treatment Court aims to foster a collaborative approach led by the Northampton District Court Probation Department working with representatives of the DA’s office, defense attorneys, staff from the Sheriff’s Department, treatment providers and clinicians who share a goal of addressing the underlying factors that cause individuals to return to substance misuse and related criminal behavior.

Like so many other communities, our region is working hard to address the opioid epidemic. The District Court often sees people who are charged with a drug crime or a crime that was motivated by drug use (for example, shoplifting in order to purchase more drugs). It’s estimated that 80 percent of people charged with crimes have a substance use disorder.

The traditional approach of punishing and incarcerating people who commit a crime potentially linked to their substance use disorder has resulted in most people returning to alcohol and or drug use, sometimes soon after engaging in more criminal conduct. This approach has not proven effective in reducing crime or making our communities safer, and certainly is not cost-effective given the skyrocketing costs of incarceration.

Many studies indicate that if the criminal justice system relies on evidence-based approaches working with court-involved people who have a substance use disorder, we can actually have a positive impact. A 2018 study noted by the National Institute of Justice, for example, showed that drug courts reduced recidivism by as much as 28 percent when compared to traditional probation.

We are opening the Treatment Court to support people ready for treatment because the physical and psychological addiction to these substances makes recovery challenging and people need all of the support they can get and not return to substance use. This in turn will reduce crime and improve the quality of life in our community.

How does the Northampton Treatment Court work?

Unlike traditional probation, where the probationer is supervised by one probation officer and is based upon compliance and sanctions, Treatment Court takes a team approach and promotes rewards. The adversarial system that is a longstanding element of the criminal justice system in which each person keeps information to themselves in order to “win” their side of the case is replaced by this team approach.

Team members discuss each probationer’s progress and while the roles of the different members of the team vary depending upon their area of expertise, it is believed that the team can collectively influence in a positive way the individual on probation.

The Treatment Court is geared toward high-risk and high-need offenders who are supervised by the Probation Department. Participation in this court is entirely voluntary and takes place after adjudication, which means after a guilty finding is made or a person has admitted guilt.

It is different from court diversion models which tend to work with low-risk offenders who may in legal trouble for their first time, for whom entering treatment might mean avoiding conviction and the accompanying criminal record.

The Treatment Court works with a population of individuals, who have either failed on traditional probation — or who are deemed almost certain to fail. The court will consider anyone for inclusion other than people with a history of sex offenses and other violent crimes.

Lawyers, probation officers and judges can refer individuals to be screened for the Treatment Court. Nobody is ever forced to participate. Instead, it’s explained to prospective participants that if they want to lead a sober lifestyle, the team will work collaboratively with them to assist them in their recovery.

A key requirement for participants at all stages of this court is honesty. This is a non-negotiable. For many people struggling with addiction, this can be the hardest requirement to meet. However, with consistent reassurance from the team members that we are there for them, it could be the cornerstone of their recovery. The philosophy of the team is that recovery from addiction, while difficult, is possible.

Probationers accepted into this program are given opportunities others may not have, such as weekly treatment, a recovery coach, quicker access to a treatment bed if needed and other types of supportive services.

Along with those opportunities comes accountability. Participants are randomly screened for drugs and meet with the judge and probation officer once a week to evaluate their progress. They are rewarded for doing well (that might be something as simple as public praise from the judge or a reduction in court costs.) They may also be sanctioned if they fail to meet obligations (increased community service hours or closer supervision.)

It’s expected that it will take most participants between 18 and 24 months to complete the program. It’s a rigorous time frame based on research indicating that people with substance use disorders need significant amounts of time in treatment to reduce their risk of relapse.

Upon successful completion of the program, the team conducts a graduation ceremony, publicly recognizing the hard work of the participant. Family members and friends may attend to show their support. Substance use disorder can mean for some people that they are unable to successfully complete or accomplish many of their goals in life. Treatment Court offers an opportunity to reflect on changes made and to celebrate success.

The team intentionally named this specialty court a Treatment Court rather than the traditional (and perhaps better known) term Drug Court. This is because the team recognized its commitment to treatment rather than simply punishing those who suffer from this disease.

Our planning team hopes to reduce the stigma associated with substance use disorder and we are fortunate in Hampshire County to have an abundance of individuals and entities committed to improving the lives of those who live in our community.

As team leaders in the development of the Treatment Court, we look forward to making a positive difference in people’s lives.

Judge Maureen E. Walsh is Presiding Justice of the Northampton District Court and Attorney Lisa Lippiello is president-elect of the Hampshire County Bar Association and a member of the Northampton Treatment Team, The team is part of the Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition run out of the city of Northampton’s health department. Members of the coalition contribute to a monthly column about local efforts addressing the opioid epidemic.

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