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How Does the Massachusetts Specialty Court Work?

Massachusetts Specialty Courts are problem-solving court sessions that offer court-supervised probationary treatment and mandated therapy. Specialty courts handle substance use disorders (drug courts), veterans’ issues (veterans treatment courts), and mental health issues (mental health courts). 

Drug Courts

Generally, Drug Courts provide intensive treatment monitored by a supervision probation officer, along with random drug testing. The Drug Court has treatment providers that offer clinical assessments, develop and keep track of treatment placements, and identify ancillary counseling, case management, and outreach services. The Judges in Drug Court sessions enforce an arduous treatment and accountability regimen, and require a strong personal commitment from defendants to end drug use. The vital elements to an effective drug court program include frequent drug testing, participation in treatment and therapeutic activities, intensive probation supervision, and accurate progress monitoring by the Drug Court Judge.

Massachusetts has 25 adult Drug Courts. The District Court operates 21 adult drug court sessions in the following counties:

  • Barnstable
  • Brockton
  • Cambridge
  • Chelsea
  • Dudley
  • Fall River
  • Greenfield
  • Hingham
  • Lawrence
  • Lowell
  • Lynn
  • Malden
  • New Bedford
  • Newton
  • Orange
  • Plymouth
  • Pittsfield
  • Quincy
  • Springfield
  • Taunton
  • Worcester

The Boston Municipal Court holds four Drug Court sessions in:

  • Charlestown
  • Dorchester
  • East Boston
  • South Boston

Veterans Treatment Courts

Veterans Treatment Courts are structured to handle criminal cases involving defendants with a history of military service, through a systemized effort with the veteran’s services delivery system, community-based providers, and the court. The Veterans Treatment Courts design the sessions to enhance public safety while dealing with the fundamental issues of traumatic brain injury, posttraumatic stress disorder, and military sexual trauma. 

The requirements of the Veterans Treatment Court include mandated treatment, abstinence from drugs and alcohol, swift accountability, and weekly interaction with the court.

There are five Veterans’ Treatment Courts in Massachusetts:

  • Norfolk County Veterans Treatment Court, at the Dedham District Court
  • Boston Veterans Court, in the Central Division of the Boston Municipal Court
  • Essex County Veterans Treatment Court, at Lawrence District Court
  • Middlesex County Veterans Treatment Court, at the Framingham District Court
  • Western Massachusetts Veterans Treatment Court, at the Holyoke District Court

Mental Health Court

Mental Health Court sessions use a court-imposed probation condition for defendants with serious mental illness, co-occurring mental health issues, or substance use disorders. The sessions offer an alternative to imprisonment through case management and by linking to community-based services with probation. The court also has a Recovery with Justice Program (RWJ). This Specialized Court session helps defendants achieve recovery, sustain stability, and avoid incarceration through mental health treatment and intensive social services.

Probationers are required to partake in community-based treatment for at least three months, along with consistent reviews from the Specialty Court team. These sessions are for persons placed on pre-trial or post-disposition probation, or persons who have alcohol/substance use disorders, severe mental health issues, and co-occurring disorders. The probation officer and treatment provider structures a service plan based on each participant’s specific mental health and social needs. This may include referrals to mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment when appropriate, and opportunities such as housing, education, and employment.

There are three mental health courts within the Boston Municipal Court Department, including:

  • Central Division 
  • West Roxbury Division
  • Roxbury Division

There are four mental health courts within the District Court Department in:

  • Cambridge
  • Plymouth
  • Springfield
  • Quincy

Homeless Court

The Homeless Court is composed of two Specialty Courts, including one in the Boston Municipal Court Department held at the Pine Street Inn and Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, and another in Cambridge. The court began in 2010 as a pilot scheme to assist homeless defendants or defendants who are likely to become homeless. This scheme provides secure permanent housing, employment, and government benefits.

After completing a substance addiction treatment program, mental health treatment, or job training program, a defendant’s pending or open default warrants are removed in misdemeanor and non-violent felony cases. The cases are terminated or dismissed, considering the defendant’s work and efforts to address their conduct and substance addictions.

Other Specialized Court Sessions

The Specialty Courts have other sessions in specific locations across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. These courts include:

  • Family Drug Court (Franklin County), provided by the Franklin Probate and Family Court in Greenfield. The court helps families where a parent is struggling with a substance use disorder. It provides children, parents, and caregivers access to community-based treatment and services. The Family Drug Court team comprises the judge, case manager, probation officer, clinician, and treatment providers. Note that it is not a mandatory program.
  • Family Resolutions Specialty Court (FRSC) provided by the Hampshire Probate and Family Court. It is a non-mandatory program that offers divorcing or separating parents the opportunity to settle their differences in a child-centered way and with minimal conflict. A Probation Officer guides the family through the process. While the family gets access to a mental health professional, a lawyer is available to the children. The FRSC does not hold trials or motion sessions. Instead, the case proceeds through a series of conferences where all team members work together to resolve the parents’ differences. The team members include the parents, their lawyers, and the judge. Through the court, families are also referred to community support services, such as substance abuse treatment, family and child therapy, early childhood intervention mediation, and financial planning. Community support services also include employment, housing, fuel, and transportation assistance.
  • The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, in agreement with the Criminal Defense Bar, provides that cases involving the possession of illicit or unlicensed firearms are transferred to the Central Division from other divisions within the Boston Municipal Court. The Lynn District Court has a specialized firearm session dedicated to accelerating the adjudication of firearm-related criminal offenses. The Lynn firearm session aims to reduce the time between arrest and disposition so that pre-trial hearings are held within 45 days of arraignment, and charges are disposed within 120 days.
  • The Superior Court Business Litigation Session (BLS) provides a forum for business and commercial disputes. The BLS consists of two full-time sessions that ensure prompt and efficient resolution of civil cases related to commercial disputes and other complex issues. The types of cases heard in the Business Litigation Sessions (BLS) include business torts, shareholder derivative claims, intellectual property, insurance coverage disputes, claims arising from corporate mergers, the sale of assets, and restrictive covenants in employment agreements.
  • The BLS also hears matters brought by the Attorney General on behalf of classes of consumers and actions presented by private parties alleging discriminatory and deceptive business practices.
  • The HOPE/MORR (Massachusetts Offender Recidivism Reduction) Project provides an intensive supervision pilot, where High-Risk Probationers in several courts may participate. All Project HOPE/MORR probationers attend a warning hearing and partake in random drug testing. There are sanctions for probation violations, including failed drug tests, missed appointments, or non-compliance with other probation conditions. Violations lead to a rapidly scheduled hearing before a judge. The hearing is usually the same day as the alleged violation. If the violation is supported, the court may use immediate and short jail stays instead of long-term detention. The goal is to change behavior through specific, more frequent, but less severe (i.e., more proportionate) consequences.

All interested persons may find Massachusetts Specialty Courts online through a city or zip code search.

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