Greenfield Recorder 02/25/2015, Page A01
By CHRIS CURTIS Recorder Staff
GREENFIELD — The expanding role of courts in the expanding opioid addiction problem was a recurring thread in the temporary Munson Street courthouseTuesday as the state’s top judge paid a visit and met with judges, staff and local legislators.
Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, sworn in as chief in July, toured the temporary Greenfield District Court, Franklin Superior Court and Family and Probate Court on Munson Street, the Franklin/Hampshire Juvenile Court on Main Street and associated offices.
“On some level this is ground-zero for the opioid epidemic right here,” Gants said in the Family and Probate Court Office. Gants pointed to Register of Probate and Family Court John Merrigan as a leader in the anti-addiction effort. Merrigan spoke of efforts to break down bureaucratic “silos” to create a seamless intervention and treatment system for opioid addicts. Merrigan has said that at least 80 percent of the child custody cases, divorces and other family cases before the court have substance abuse at the core.
Gants said he was impressed by the level of integration between courts in the county and said the state’s courts need to reach out as roles change from simply deciding cases. “Increasingly in the court system we’re seeing ourselves as problem- solvers,” Gants said.
Merrigan introduced Marisa Hebble, director of the Opioid Task Force founded locally and based out of the court offices, where Hebble said she is uniquely positioned to reach the people she needs to.
Gants said he hears about heroin everywhere he goes and has been asked why this is something everyone is talking about now.
“What I said is nobody sees this as an inner-city problem,” Gants said.
Gants said that not long ago the courts handled 3,000 Section 35 substance abuse committal applications a year. The courts say 7,000 last year, “and by all accounts we’re looking at 8,000 this year,” he said. Gants said the government has secured some new treatment beds but more are needed, particularly in secure facilities for those committed through the Section 35 process, so that these are not sent to state prisons.
Downstairs in the probation offices, Superior Court Chief Probation Officer Sheila Moriarty said almost every case is drug related.
“85 to 95 percent of our (probationers) are opioid users, but don’t forget alcohol, that’s our triedand- true,” Moriarty said. Moriarty spoke of the difficulties of work in a rural county, with all the serious crimes found in an urban area but probationers spread out over hundreds of square miles and spotty tracking system coverage for those probationers ordered to wear an ankle bracelet. Moriarty said some of the tracking system contracts are due to expire and the department is looking for new equipment.
Other stops on Gants’ itinerary included meetings with judges, court security, the Law Library and the Court Service Center.
Speaking after the visit, Gants said he has tried to visit a court every two months and Greenfield is his third stop after Springfield and Holyoke. Gants said it isn’t unique to Greenfield, but the level of pride in what they do and cooperation among staff even with short staffing was impressive, as is the leadership role taken in the opioid crisis on Merrigan’s initiative, and the Court Service Center. Gants said as one of two in the state, the center will serve as a model for others. The center is designed to help those interacting with the court to navigate the system. This includes, Gants said, helping families to present Section 35 cases and find community resources as basic as food.