Tennessean leads National Opioid Task Force set up by state courts

News release from Administrative Office of the Courts

Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) Director Deborah Taylor Tate and Indiana Chief Justice Loretta H. Rush were appointed co-chairs of the newly created Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) and Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA) National Opioid Task Force. The Task Force will find solutions, examine current efforts, and make recommendations to address the opioid epidemic’s ongoing impact on the justice system.

“While much attention has deservedly been focused on this epidemic’s health impact, we cannot ignore the significant legal issues it also raises. It has become a recurring theme throughout our nation that this crisis is crippling our communities and overwhelming our courts,” said Justice Rush.

The misuse of opioids such as heroin, morphine, and prescription pain medicines is not only a devastating public health crisis, it is critically affecting the administration of justice in courthouses throughout the United States. The number of children in foster care because of parental substance abuse has nearly tripled since 2012, and drug overdose deaths are at record highs.

“We have seen first-hand the devastation of families in Tennessee from the opioid epidemic and applaud the establishment of this National Task Force by the judicial branch,” Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam said. “Whether passing legislation, ensuring children are placed in safe homes, or establishing more drug courts, it will take all of us working together — executive, legislative and judiciary branches — to save lives and heal families here and across the nation.”

According to an August 2017 report published by the Sycamore Institute, in 2012 Tennessee had an average of 1.4 opioid prescriptions for every Tennessean — the second highest rate in the U.S.  Prescription opioids have surpassed alcohol as the primary substance of abuse for treatment funded by the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (TDMHSAS). The epidemic in Tennessee has resulted in higher opioid-related health care costs, more drug-related crimes, decreased work productivity, more children in state custody, and a 10-fold rise in babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome.

“Four Tennesseans die every day because of the opioid epidemic. As Commissioner, this is untenable and unacceptable,” said Marie Williams, Commissioner of Tennessee Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. “Together, our Governor, Legislature, and the Judiciary have expanded drug courts, we have established an opioid drug czar, and provided training to thousands of judges, mental health providers, and citizens. We hope Tennessee — through Director Tate’s strong leadership and background in mental health — can play a pivotal role in national solutions.”

The work plan for the judicial branch task force includes the following strategies: convening representatives from state and federal government and key national organizations to share existing strategies and identify unmet needs; creating partnerships with entities addressing the impact of opioids on children, with specific emphasis on foster care, assisting state courts in developing opioid task forces, and working with existing state task forces to make recommendations for local response efforts; developing guiding principles that state courts can use for successful collaboration among treatment providers, criminal justice systems, and child welfare agencies; and creating a checklist of state legislation, policy, and court rules that aid or inhibit response efforts.

“As we have experienced here in Tennessee, cross-branch cooperation is absolutely critical to the fight against the opioid epidemic,” Speaker of the House Beth Harwell said. “I hope our work here with the Ad Hoc Task Force on Opioid Abuse, assisted by Tennessee Judges and Director Tate, will be informative to this National Task Force being launched by the CCJ/COSCA and our colleagues in the Judiciary.”

The State Justice Institute (SJI) is providing financial support for the task force. The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) will provide additional funding, as well as staffing support.

“I am proud of our participation at the regional and now national level to address this epidemic in Tennessee and across the entire nation,” said Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeff Bivins. “We appreciate the SJI for recognizing the critical role the judiciary has and will continue to play in educating and assisting our judges to deal with the impact to citizens — and our courts — day in and day out.”

Over the past year, the Tennessee courts have been involved with several other prominent initiatives related to the opioid epidemic, including being a charter member of the Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative (RJOI). The initiative grew out of the Regional Judicial Opioid Summit held in Cincinnati in August 2016, and focuses on problem-solving on a regional level. RJOI stakeholders are comprised of chief justices, state court administrators, judges, executive branch leaders, legislators, behavioral health treatment providers, community supervision agencies, medical experts, prescription drug monitoring program managers, regulatory agencies, child welfare representatives, and others.

“This appointment is an honor and clearly recognizes the excellent leadership the Tennessee judiciary has already provided and the collaborative process that is ongoing across all three branches of government in the state,” Director Tate said. “I look forward to working with colleagues across the nation to save lives, families, and communities.”

Judge Duane Slone has worked closely with Tate and Bivins on the RJOI.

“I am proud of the work the seven state RJOI has accomplished and that we will continue to build momentum with the establishment of this National Task Force,” said Slone. “Director Tate has been an integral part in leadership for our judiciary and we stand ready to assist the National Task Force as they move forward to identify best practices and successful programs across the U.S.”

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