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Local News

Justice Department settles discrimination claims against Pa. courts over opioid treatment

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Peter Hall, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
February 1, 2024

Pennsylvania’s court system will pay a total of $100,000 to six people who were prevented from taking medication prescribed to treat opioid addiction while under court supervision as part of a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice. 

The settlement resolves a 2022 lawsuit by the Justice Department alleging that the Pennsylvania Unified Judicial System (UJS), which includes county courts, violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

The suit claimed county courts ordered the six victims in the lawsuit and others to stop taking medication prescribed for opiate use disorder while on probation or parole or as a condition of their participation in a drug court program.

“Those affected by the UJS court policies were put to an agonizing choice: take their medication and face incarceration or termination from their treatment court program or forgo their medication and suffer painful withdrawal symptoms while risking relapse, overdose and death,” the U.S. attorney’s office in Philadelphia said in a statement announcing the settlement.

The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts said in a statement that the settlement alleviates the burden of ongoing litigation for the courts and that the court system does not admit liability and continues to deny the Justice Department’s claims. 

“The Pennsylvania court system has long been a leader nationally in offering effective treatment and rehabilitation opportunities for those in need, including those eligible for treatment court programs,” the APOC statement said. 

Pennsylvania started its first treatment court in 1997. The courts, now in more than two dozen counties, provide a diversionary program that supports addiction recovery through intensive court supervision, drug testing, court appearances and structured treatment and recovery processes.

“All of the component courts of the Unified Judicial System reiterate their continuing and steadfast commitment to our treatment courts and to providing full access to the justice system and fair and even handed treatment to all citizens, including those with disabilities,” the AOPC said.    

U.S. Attorney Jacqueline Romero said the lawsuit brought by her office advances the fight against the opioid epidemic by removing discriminatory barriers to addiction treatment.

“All too often, people taking medication to treat their [opioid use disorder] are subjected to discrimination based on unfounded stigma associated with these medications,” Romero said in the statement. “It is a violation of the ADA to deny someone access to programs and services simply because they are taking medication their doctors have prescribed to get and keep their OUD in remission.”

In addition to the UJS and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the lawsuit named as defendants courts of common pleas in Blair, Jefferson, Lackawanna, and Northumberland counties. 

In addition to compensating victims, the settlement requires the UJS to train all county criminal court judges and treatment court professionals on the ADA and opioid use treatment medication. Several of the count courts named in the suit must adopt an anti-discrimination policy related to OUD medication. The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania will recommend that other county courts also adopt the policy.

The Justice Department has entered settlements with court systems, jails and prisons in Allegheny County, Kentucky, and Massachusetts as part of its effort to combat discrimination over opioid use disorder treatment, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.