Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative
Aug. 24, 2016

Good morning and welcome. Thank you Mike for that introduction.

Thanks as well to all of you for attending this first of its kind Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative and for your efforts to make tomorrow better than today.

Clearly, everyone in attendance is committed to eradicating the scourge of opioid addiction and its devastating impact on the region.

Everyone in this room also understands that helping those with an opioid use disorder is a challenging and complex undertaking.

This work is critically important not just to the individuals suffering from this disorder, but to our families and to their communities. Without a doubt, this is a problem that crosses jurisdictions.

It is a problem that respects no borders, no boundaries, no political concepts of who “should” be responsible for addressing this problem. Solving the opioid crisis that continues to grow in our communities rests with each of us and all of us.

That’s why I’m pleased to see the various partners in this crowd. That’s why I support this gathering.

As a former prosecutor and trial judge, I understand that drug addiction is a social ill that requires a multifaceted solution including effective interdiction by law enforcement, prompt access to treatment, broad-based community action, and robust statewide prescription drug monitoring programs.

I am convinced that with the collective wisdom and will of those who are gathered here today, we can meet this problem, we can bend the curve and turn around the opioid epidemic.

We must provide our citizens battling addiction with a fighting chance at sustained recovery. It is not just in their interest. It is in the interest of their families, their communities, our states, and our region.

The importance and effectiveness of integrating opioid prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery efforts across government and state lines cannot be overstated.

In fact, there is no other choice.

A cross-section of all three branches of government and our partners in the private sector must tackle this problem head-on. As you know all too well, opioid use disorder is pervasive and more and more of those afflicted are losing their lives. The government’s response must jettison traditional notions of how government works and to think outside the box.

More than that however, is the importance of gathering regional partners comprised of Chief Justices, State Court Administrators, judges, executive branch leaders, legislators, behavioral health treatment providers, medical experts, and child welfare leaders to discuss how to more effectively rehabilitate those offenders and families that enter the criminal justice system because of an opioid use disorder. This includes considering what happens when they move across state lines and the interstate challenges that movement presents.

What happens in Michigan impacts Tennessee, what happens in West Virginia influences Illinois, and what affects Pennsylvania makes its mark in Kentucky.

It is well-documented that America’s opioid epidemic is a nationwide problem, but our region has been particularly hit hard.

In fact, two of the states represented here today – Ohio and West Virginia – have the two highest heroin fatality rates in the nation according to the “Prescription Nation 2016: Addressing America’s Drug Epidemic” report produced by the National Safety Council.

A select few national statistics are also staggering:

Ideas gleaned this week from our regional partners will be critical in this battle that we cannot afford to lose.

In the same vein, I believe that our region’s judicial leaders have an especially important role to play. In fact, I would argue we have no choice but to come forward.

At the end of the day, the courts and the criminal justice system are asked – oftentimes as a last resort – to make headway against a steady stream of citizens in desperate need of help. We in the judicial branch must be, in fact, partners in this problem-solving crusade.

America’s judicial system occupies a critical place in the quest for solutions to the opioid epidemic.

It is also unquestioned that judges play a particularly important role in their local communities to convene partners across the branches of government and the operations of government.

Be that as it may, offenders are addicted to a substance so highly addictive that dealing with it and its many complex ripples solely within the criminal justice system presents a real challenge.

For too long, the solution to drug addiction was solely arrest, incarcerate, and then release. The trouble with that cycle was that the recidivism rate was sky high.

Failures in that practice has caused policymakers to realize that there has to be a better way because we can’t arrest and incarcerate our way out of this problem.

That, in part, is why we are here today.

Federal and state departments, agencies both public and private, treatment facilities, and spiritual centers have combined efforts in unprecedented levels to combat this addiction. It’s a lot, it’s ongoing, and it’s vital. The next question is, what else must be done?

We hope to answer that question and more over the next three days.

Please note that these three days represent a kickoff, not a destination. We are here to work. We are here to cooperate. We are here to learn.

This opening summit begins a yearlong, first-of-its kind initiative of regional policy planning and development across state criminal justice, public health, family support, and medical and behavioral treatment systems.

If we do this right, if we make some headway by borrowing ideas and joining forces, I believe our regional collaboration can serve as a national model – a model for how to address this problem in other regions of our country.

This is a first-of-its-kind summit. Let’s make sure it’s not the last of its kind.

And not only as a successful process in the opioid arena, but also it could be applied to other issues that can no longer simply be addressed in silos.

To meet those lofty objectives, the planning group identified two priorities to explore in detail.

No. 1: How can state courts and treatment providers use best practices to more effectively manage drug testing, accountability, and treatment services across state lines given the transient nature of the population in the criminal justice system with an opioid use disorder?

And No. 2: How can states in the region legislatively and practically provide greater access to opioid prescribing data in the PDMPs so that behavioral health providers, courts, and key justice partners understand the prescription “track record” of individuals under court supervision in order to identify, treat, and monitor them with a fuller understanding of their opioid use?

These are important priorities indeed, but not the only issues in play. Consider them as merely a starting point.

Over these next three days, we will be receiving executive-level briefings from experts.

They are designed to inform meaningful facilitated discussions and the action planning that will follow.

On Friday, we will commit to the regional priorities, goals, and courses of action that will guide our individual and our collective efforts.

It is my hope that in three days, we will all look at our role in this crisis differently.

It is my hope that in one year this crisis we are facing will turn the corner, in part because of our conviction to make it happen.

I also hope you realize that courts and their justice partners can be an effective team to address the opioid problems in your backyard.

Thank you for your commitment to this mission. I appreciate your dedication. Let’s get to work.

Now it’s my pleasure to introduce Kentucky’s Chief Justice, John Minton. Chief Justice Minton is serving his second eight-year term on the Supreme Court of Kentucky and his third four-year term as chief justice.

The Kentucky court system has been transformed in many areas during his administration.

He steered Kentucky courts through the Great Recession by creating efficiencies at all four levels of the court system.

He has made it a priority to invest in the people who operate the courts and in the court technology that can cut costs and deliver better service. His sweeping technology initiative has brought eFiling to every Kentucky county.

He addressed lagging Judicial Branch compensation by overhauling the salary structure for court employees and increasing pay for circuit court clerks. He’s currently working to improve stagnant salaries for Kentucky judges.

During his tenure, the Supreme Court adopted the state’s first uniform family law rules and Juvenile Court rules. He has worked with the Executive and Legislative branches to carry out penal code and juvenile justice reform.

Chief Justice Minton is the newly elected president of the Conference of Chief Justices and chair of the National Center for State Courts Board of Directors. In July, President Obama nominated him to serve on the board of the State Justice Institute. Before sitting on the Supreme Court, he was in private practice and a judge for the Circuit Court and Court of Appeals.

Please join me in welcoming Chief Justice Minton.