July | August 2017







Judicial Branch Takes Steps to
Combat Opioid Epidemic

By Courtney Daniel, communications manager
The widespread use of opioids has had a devastating impact on all 50 states. From 2014 to 2015, opioid death rates increased almost 16 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many state legislators and executive branch officials have been in the spotlight for their efforts to curb this crisis, but the judicial branch has also been working to stop the spread of opioids.
“This is a widespread public health issue and it affects several aspects of state governments. We need to join with the executive branch and the legislative branch in our respective states to address this problem adequately,” said Kentucky Chief Justice John Minton. “It’s critical that we talk with each other to understand what the needs are to provide a full-frontal attack on the epidemic from all three branches of government.”
In response to this epidemic, Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor convened a nine-state Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative, or RJOI, an ongoing first-of-its-kind judicial enterprise. “As a former prosecutor and trial judge, I understand that drug addiction is a social ill that requires a multifaceted solution,” O’Connor said. O’Connor also said the RJOI will focus on effective interdiction by law enforcement, prompt access to treatment, broad-based community action and robust statewide prescription drug monitoring programs.
Representatives from varied disciplines including the medical community, law enforcement and the courts joined together to kick off the RJOI in Cincinnati last year. The RJOI created an action plan that includes data sharing of medical information, such as overdose/poisoning rates, implementation of best practices, training, education and outreach. Six state court chief justices just last month signed a charter to support the regional action plan.  
“Each state approaches this issue separately, but there haven’t been opportunities for us as members of the judiciary to approach this on a regional basis,” Minton said. “This isn’t just a state problem, it’s a regional problem. The opioid epidemic does not recognize state boundaries.”
The RJOI is the first initiative that has brought together the collective leadership of state courts to address the opioid epidemic at a regional level. The RJOI’s founding states include Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia—states where the opioid crisis has been particularly widespread.
Minton, who also serves as the president of the Conference of Chief Justices and chair of the National Center for State Courts Board of Directors, said the opioid epidemic’s impacts are seen not only in criminal cases, but also in family courts.
“We’re noticing an incredibly large increase in the number of cases that are affecting families. These families live on both sides of the Ohio River, and the ability to respond quickly to a family in need with relative placement of children across state lines is critical,” Minton said. “The current mechanism doesn’t necessarily serve an immediate need. We are going to be asking our legislatures to look at those.”
According to the National Center for State Courts, there are significant issues that can be addressed by the regional approach to combating opioid use, including reducing the number of opioids in circulation, providing access to effective treatment, and ultimately reducing the number of deaths from opioid overdose. Chief Justice O’Connor noted the need for cross-border engagement, an emphasis on child placement, and the overall need for urgency because “we are nowhere near the finish line on this issue.”
State legislatures across the U.S. have been passing legislation relating to prescription drug abuse for many years, and Debra Miller, director of health policy for The Council of State Governments, said she expects that focus to continue.
“The opioid epidemic has risen to the top of policy of agendas across the nation because everybody has a personal story about this issue, either because it has touched their lives or the lives of their constituents,” said Miller. “Furthermore, there is no denying the impacts on states from incarceration rates, demands for treatment, and costs for hospitals and first responders. All branches of government are important to solving this difficult issue.”
Minton said the RJOI is working to identify the scope of the opioid problem to find ways the courts can provide information to policymakers.
“We are trying to provide a checklist of things we can all take back to our states to see what we can do to open up channels of communication across state lines,” Minton said. “We are going to continue to address this. While this is an issue of national importance, this is a uniquely regional issue that calls on all of us to try to find ways to reach across state lines to hear from our colleagues to explore best strategies.”
For more information about the RJOI, visit the National Center of State Courts at ncsc.org.