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HARRISBURG — A fight between the U.S. Department of Justice and leaders of Pennsylvania’s justice system is unfolding in federal court — and the outcome could have major implications for those who suffer opioid addiction and facing criminal charges.
The federal agency sued the Pennsylvania court system in February, alleging it discriminated against people with opioid use disorders. The Department of Justice found that several county courts in the state system prohibited or restricted the use of prescription drugs to treat addiction.
He now argues that the entire judicial system is responsible, as Pennsylvania’s constitution gives the state Supreme Court “general supervisory and administrative authority over all courts and justices of the peace.”
Lawyers for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and its administrative arm are trying to convince a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit. They argue that the justice system does not have a “top-down” leadership structure like a corporation, but rather is made up of many parts, each with their own responsibilities.
Here’s what you need to know about the case.
Three medications – methadone, buprenorphine and extended-release naltrexone – are federally approved to treat opioid use disorder. All three are effective and life-saving, according to a 2019 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
According to a report from National Institute on Drug Abuse, a federal agency. The drugs enable patients to “function normally, attend school or work, and participate in other forms of treatment,” the report said.
The third drug, naltrexone, works to block the euphoric effects of opioids, and the feds The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found tthere is “no potential for abuse and diversion with naltrexone”.
The trial focuses on people who are under the supervision of a judge.
The Department of Justice’s main argument is that people with opioid use disorders should have an equal opportunity to benefit from programs that serve as an alternative to incarceration – and create unnecessary barriers to those programs is a violation of their rights under federal law.
The Justice Department began investigating Pennsylvania’s justice system after receiving complaints about a drug ban for opioid use disorder in Jefferson County in 2018. The ban caused ” significant harm” to at least two people, the federal agency wrote in a letter of findings, which has been made public. released in February.
The same letter alleged that Jefferson and Northumberland counties violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, and it identified six other counties it said had or had problematic policies for treatment court programs that serve as an alternative. to incarceration.
In that February letter, the Justice Department urged the statewide court system to make several changes — and it filed the federal lawsuit later that month when it was unhappy with the response. of the judicial system.
A 2018 Jefferson County court order banning ‘opioid treatment drugs’ left Sonya Mosey faced with a choice: stop taking her doctor-prescribed medications or have her probation revoked and go to court. jail.
Mosey had struggled with opioid addiction for over a decade and withdrawing from the drug led her to feel sick every day and fear the worst, she previously told Spotlight PA.
“Honestly, I knew I was going to relapse and probably die,” Mosey said. “I knew my parents were probably going to have to bury me.”
After the judge lifted the ban, Mosey said she had “a spark of hope.”
Guidelines from the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration warn against arbitrary delays of use medications for opioid use disorder. The 2019 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that people are about 50% less likely to die when treated long-term with buprenorphine or methadone.
“There is no doubt that — especially in the court system of a large state like Pennsylvania — some mistakes will be made in all sixty judicial districts,” attorneys for the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and its administrative arm wrote in a court record.
But they argued the Justice Department failed to provide evidence of a systemic, statewide problem. The attorneys said court leaders across the state are already reminding county courts that they must meet federal requirements and provide sufficient support to help courts meet their obligations. And they say the statewide system should not be held accountable for the oversight judges provide at the local level.
They also raised a number of other technical arguments, including whether the Department of Justice has standing to bring a lawsuit.
The statewide system has the power and responsibility to ensure that county courts do not adopt these types of blanket discriminatory policies, Justice Department attorneys wrote. They argued that the local courts were part of the statewide system, not separate legal entities, and that the statewide justice system’s disability discrimination policies were ” generic” and “insufficient”.
Justice Department lawyers are asking a federal judge to order Pennsylvania courts to make a number of changes. They argue that the system should adopt or revise policies to explicitly state that no court in the system can discriminate against someone for taking prescription opioid use disorder medication.
In court filings, attorneys for the Pennsylvania justice system said the Justice Department could use the lawsuit “to set a national example to advance policy.”
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According to a recent special report by STAT, a health-focused news organization.
In an April press release, the department highlighted the Lawsuit in Pennsylvania as an example of its broader response to the opioid epidemic. Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for the department’s civil rights division, said the agency is committed to using federal civil rights laws “to protect people with opioid use disorder from discriminatory barriers as they move forward in their lives”.
“The justice system needs to step in and make sure these kinds of practices stop immediately,” Sally Friedman, senior vice president of legal advocacy for the National Legal Action Center, told Spotlight PA.
Friedman’s organization represents Mosey and helped her fight Jefferson County’s 2018 ban. Friedman said the state’s court system can’t turn a blind eye to discrimination when many of its courts interfere with people’s civil rights, especially when such interference puts lives at risk. .
The federal district court judge hearing the case has yet to rule on the motion to dismiss the court system as of July 13.
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