The Work of the National Judicial Opioid Task Force: A Significant Response to a National Crisis

In 2017 opioid overdoses in the United States accounted for 47,600 deaths (up from 42,000 the year prior). The crisis continues to take a heavy toll, resulting in about 120 deaths per day last year. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the “economic burden” of prescription opioid misuse alone at $78.5 billion a year in health care, lost wages, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement. In 2017, after an unprecedented increase in opioid overdoses over the prior ten years, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency.

This crisis has strained the courts system’s resources. It can take a great deal of time to ensure that adequate supports are in place for those who are addicted and their families. Such cases can also stay with the court for years, often requiring frequent monitoring. Additionally, judges and staff need more information and education on how to deal with the crisis. Realizing the great need, in August of 2017 the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators created the National Judicial Opioid Task Force (NJOTF).

Early in its work, the task force, co-chaired by Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Tennessee State Court Administrator Deborah Taylor Tate, developed five principles for states courts to consider:

  • The justice system is in the middle of this crisis and should lead the way in delivering solutions.
  • Judges should use their positions to bring together leaders of government agencies and other groups to address the epidemic.
  • Courts should ensure that opioid abusers get the treatment they need.
  • Interventions should be comprehensive and should include initial proper treatment, recovery services, and appropriate placement of children.
  • The courts should use data whenever possible to help them make good decisions.

The task force was organized into three working groups.

Children and Families

Purpose: To ensure that the complex needs of families with substance abuse problems, and who are involved in or at risk of becoming involved in the child welfare system or juvenile justice system, are met through interdisciplinary and collaborative service delivery to support both parents and children and to advocate for resources to support these efforts.

Civil and Criminal Justice

Purpose: To ensure an understanding of addiction and to develop and implement standards to be used by state courts for successful collaboration and integration between and among treatment professionals and the criminal justice system.

Collaboration and Education

Purpose: To foster collaboration between and among various traditional and nontraditional justice system stakeholders, ensuring a comprehensive approach to addressing opioid use disorders (OUDs) in the courts, and to educate judges on all topics, challenges, solutions, and existing programs to address OUDs in the courts.

The task force membership was expanded in March of 2018 and the workgroups have been developing a number of deliverables. The NJOTF has created an online resource page for courts. Task force publications (including videos and webinars), information on substance-use disorder, treatment services, the impact of the crisis on special populations, collaborative efforts, court based-programs and strategies, and training information are available on the page.

There are two other webpages that can provide you more information on the crisis and the NJOTF:

Main page:
This page has general information on the crisis, links to legal responses, and updates.

National Judicial Opioid Task Force:
This page provides information on the activities of the task force.

While the crisis may still rage, it is heartwarming to see the level and breadth of the response by the courts, the executive branch, and the medical profession. It is hoped that soon we will have passed the peak of the crisis and will be looking to a much brighter future!


Greg Lambard, chief probation officer of Burlington County, is a 28-year employee with the New Jersey State Courts. He currently serves as a director on the NACM Board and as vice-president of the Mid-Atlantic Association for Court Management.