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North Carolina’s Opioid Epidemic and the Judicial System

June 15, 2018

The Division of Health and Human Services statistics showed 12,000 North Carolina residents died from opioid related overdoses between 1999 and 2016, with a cost estimated at over $1.3 billion.  In addition, a study by Castlight Health Study placed four North Carolina cities in the top 25 in America for prescription opioid abuse. Wilmington was ranked number one, followed by Hickory (fifth), Jacksonville (12th) and Fayetteville (18th).  

Our courts are at the center of this epidemic. Individuals with opioid addictions often end up appearing in superior courts, district courts, juvenile courts and special proceedings.  This bogs down our legal system and leaves individuals, families, and public services impaired.

Many believe the solution lies in joint efforts between different services within the community; police officers, county and state representatives, non profit organization leaders, health care providers, and members of the judicial system.  The following three initiatives are examples of how local organizations work collaboratively across systems of care to address our opioid epidemic.  

Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative (RJOI) –  In 2017, Chief Justice Mark Martin enrolled NC into RJOI.  This group is working to provide education, training and technical assistance across systems to help implement tools to combat the epidemic.  Data is being collected and shared in order to study and analyze trends. These trends help target areas for intervention, and then implement effective pilot programs.  

Treatment Courts have been found the most effective tool for assisting individuals with recovery.  Sadly, funding was eliminated by the NC General Assembly leaving only 22 of our 44 districts able to continue operating.  These remaining 22 treatment courts lack consistency and are varied in purpose, structure and sustainability.

In order to combat these inconsistencies, the Judicially Managed Accountability and Recovery Court Model (JMARC) was developed by Chief District Court Judge Joe Buckner.  This model provides substance abuse individuals with assistance in navigating, accessing, and receiving voluntary medical and behavioral therapy.  Once the health care provider has a treatment plan in place, the treatment courts then provide accountability.

Criminal Justice Advisory Group (CJAG) The New Hanover County CJAG was formed in 2016, and is composed of city and county managers, sheriffs, local police chiefs, district attorney, clerk of court, senior resident superior court judge, chief district court judge, district manager for probation, chief court counselor, public defender and the head of New Hanover County Community Justice Services.  This group works on responses to gang violence, youth crime and violence, court efficiencies, sex offenses and the opioid crisis. Recently The New Hanover County CJAG has produced five public service announcements which have aired on TV, social media, movie theaters and  New Hanover County’s website and YouTube site.

Community Partners Coalition of New Hanover County (CPC) was formed in March 2017 combining representatives from education, public health, health care, mental health, substance abuse, courts, government, housing, first responders, faith based community, business, transportation and others.  Their work has resulted in funding for a Quick Response Team which encourages individuals who have received the reversal drug Narcan™ to seek and access treatment.  Additional work by CPC is the pilot of a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program in the Wilmington Place Department, that allows officers to redirect low level drug offenders to community based services instead of jail.  

These programs are just a few of the innovative attempts at combating our problematic drug abuse crisis.  Much more work needs to be done before we begin to see a decline in drug related deaths and crimes. Our North Carolina judicial leaders continue to ponder and address these issues that bog down our court systems, and ultimately ruin our communities.  Learn more; A Crisis: North Carolina’s Opioid Epidemic

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