Spence: Statewide specialty court access in Massachusetts within reach
BOSTON — Another year of expanding the state's specialty court network should ensure that all veterans and people with mental health and drug addiction involved in the state's judicial system can access the programs they need as part of their rehabilitation, court officials said Wednesday.
By the end of this fiscal year, the Massachusetts Trial Court plans to have 44 specialty courts in operation, including drug courts, mental health courts and veterans treatment courts, according to a report from a commission tasked with examining addiction treatment in the criminal justice system. Drug courts, the commission wrote in its report, "have a unique and important role ... by addressing the needs of certain targeted defendants in the criminal justice system."
As part of a three-year specialty court expansion effort, drug courts opened in the Brockton, Dudley, Fall River and Lowell districts in the 2015 fiscal year, with a juvenile drug court in Taunton. This year's expansion includes drug court openings in Worcester, Pittsfield, Taunton, Springfield and Hingham district courts, the Salem Juvenile Court and Greenfield Probate and Family Court.
"Our expectation is that with this three years of expansion doubling the number of specialty courts in the commonwealth that we will be able actually to address the needs of every person who is appropriate for a drug court, a mental health court or a veterans court, that every person who is appropriate for such a specialty court would have access to such a court," Trial Court Administrator Harry Spence told lawmakers and staff. "In the current situation, it all depends on where you happen to be located. If you've got a serious drug problem and you're in a location where there's no drug court, you don't have the option of considering treatment in the same way."
The Trial Court is requesting an allocation of $2.8 million in the fiscal 2017 budget for the next round of expansion, Spence said. He pointed to Fitchburg as a possible "candidate" for a drug court next year.
Funding for drug court expansion is among the 13 recommendations made by a Special Commission on Substance Addiction Treatment in the Criminal Justice System, along with expanding pre-trial diversion programs, peer support and recovery programs in specialty courts and the movement of current online treatment resources into a central navigation system.
The commission made its recommendations at the end of 2015 after working throughout the year, Rep. Randy Hunt said during a presentation of the findings on Wednesday.
"It's like we were a snake swallowing an elephant with all the information," Hunt, a Sandwich Republican, said to laughter. "I guess that's politically wrong — I should say swallow a donkey — but we digested a lot of information."
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