Specialty Courts are problem-solving court sessions which provide court-supervised probation and mandated treatment focused on treating the mental health or substance abuse issues underlying criminal behavior. There are many types of specialty courts; Massachusetts has four types of specialty court sessions: drug courts, mental health courts, veterans’ treatment courts, and homeless courts. The use of specialty courts (also referred to as “problem-solving courts”) has increased significantly in the last few years throughout the country.  Specialty courts focus on substance abuse and addiction (drug courts), mental health issues (mental health courts) and veterans’ issues (veterans treatment courts).   

Specialty Courts Locations

Drug Courts

Drug courts address the issues underlying criminal behavior, such as drug or alcohol addiction and/or mental illness. Massachusetts has 22 adult drug courts and three Juvenile Drug Courts.  Drug Courts provide intensive, supervised probation and mandate attendance at treatment, as well as regular drug testing with progress monitored by a supervising judge. Substance abuse treatment coordinators and probation officers provide clinical assessments, develop and monitor treatment placements, and identify ancillary counseling, case management and outreach services. The adult drug courts operate in the following District Courts: Ayer, Barnstable, Brockton, Cambridge, Chelsea, Concord, Dudley, Fall River, Greenfield, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, Malden, New Bedford, Newton, Orange, Plymouth, and Quincy.  The juvenile drug courts operate in New Bedford, Fall River and Taunton. There are four drug court sessions in the Boston Municipal Court: Charlestown, Dorchester, East Boston, and South Boston.

The Supreme Judicial Court’s Standards on Substance Abuse (1998) urged judges to be cognizant of the role substance abuse plays in all matters that come before them. In criminal cases, the judge has the authority to require that defendants receive appropriate treatment, to have the probation department intensively monitor treatment assessments and placements and maintain relationships with local treatment providers, and to impose graduated sanctions for non-compliance. Judges in drug court sessions typically impose a strenuous regimen of treatment and accountability, and require a strong personal commitment from defendants to take control of their life situations and eliminate drug use.  The key elements to an effective drug court program include: intensive probation supervision, including frequent drug testing, participation in treatment and therapeutic activities, and careful progress monitoring by the drug court judge.

Drug Courts: Facts and Statistics

Firearm Sessions

By agreement between the criminal defense bar and the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, cases involving the possession of illegal or unlicensed firearms are transferred to the Central Division from other divisions within the Boston Municipal Court.  The transfer of a case takes place immediately after arraignment, and the processing of ballistics or other forms of forensic evidence is expedited at the direction of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office.  The status of these cases is closely monitored by the court for the earliest possible resolution of discovery and pretrial motions in order to prepare these cases for trial or other final disposition.  

The Lynn District Court has a specialized firearm session that focuses and expedites the adjudication of firearm-related criminal offenses.  The prompt resolution of firearm charges is seen as essential to reestablishing public safety and confidence in the communities serviced by the court.  The Lynn firearm session has a goal of reducing the time between arrest and disposition so that pretrial hearings are held within 45 days of arraignment and charges are disposed within 120 days.

Mental Health Courts

Since 2009, the Springfield District Court has had a mental health session designed for individuals who are competent to stand trial, have disposed of their criminal cases by admission to sufficient facts or guilty plea, and have been placed on probation.  In 2011, the Plymouth District Court established a mental health session as the first mental health court whose clinical services were funded by the Department of Mental Health, which now funds the service agencies supporting both specialty sessions.  The mental health court sessions include a court-imposed condition of probation for defendants who have serious mental illness or co-occurring mental health or alcohol/substance abuse issues. The sessions are designed to provide an alternative to incarceration through case management, and by linking to community-based services  with probation.  The probationers are required to participate in community-based treatment for a minimum of three months in conjunction with regular reviews by the specialty court team.  Almost 70 individuals have graduated from these programs, and an additional 32 participants are currently being served.

There are three mental health courts within the Boston Municipal Court Department. Participation in the mental health court is for individuals who have been placed on pre-trial probation or post-disposition probation, and have serious mental health issues or co-occurring mental health and alcohol/substance abuse issues.  When competency is an issue, after consultation with an attorney, participation may be available as a term of release.

The first mental health session began in 2007 in the Central Division through the financial assistance of the Sidney Baer Foundation and the efforts of Judge Maurice Richardson (ret.). Since 2014, the Department of Mental Health has provided additional financial support and resources, which has enabled the expansion of the mental health sessions to the West Roxbury Division and Roxbury Division. Working with a mental health clinician from the Boston Medical Center, the probation officer assigned to the mental health session identifies the particular mental health and social needs of each participant, and creates a service plan which includes referrals to mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment when appropriate, as well as housing, educational and employment opportunities.

The length of participation in a mental health session is usually between 3 to 12 months.  The Court monitors progress and compliance of the service plan through regular in-court reviews with the Judge, mental health clinician, and probation officer.

Recovery with Justice Program Brochure - Mental Health Session of the West Roxbury Division of the Boston Municipal Court  pdf format of Mental Health Session - Recovery with Justice Program

Veterans' Treatment Courts

Veterans’ treatment courts are designed to handle criminal cases involving defendants who have a history of military service through a coordinated effort among the veterans services delivery system, community-based providers, and the court, thereby improving public safety while dealing with the underlying issues of posttraumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and military sexual trauma.  Abstinence from drugs and alcohol, mandated treatment, swift accountability, and weekly interaction with the court are requirements of the Veterans Treatment Court. Currently, there are two veterans’ treatment courts in Massachusetts, the Norfolk County Veterans Treatment Court, located at the Dedham District Court, and the Boston Veterans Court, located in the Central Division of the Boston Municipal Court.

Business Litigation Session of the Superior Court Implements Discover Pilot Project

Homeless Court

The Homeless Court is a specialty court in the Boston Municipal Court Department held at the Pine Street Inn and Lemuel Shattuck Hospital. Started in 2010 as a pilot program, the purpose of the court is to assist defendants who are homeless or at risk of being homeless secure permanent housing, employment and government benefits. Upon the completion of a substance addiction treatment program, job training program or mental health treatment, a defendant’s pending or open default warrants are removed in misdemeanor and non-violent felony cases. The cases are dismissed or terminated in consideration of the defendant’s work and efforts to address their behaviors and substance addictions that caused  the criminal conduct. Since 2012, the Homeless Court has served all Divisions within the Boston Municipal Court Department. 

Homeless Court Program - A Way Forward  pdf format of Homeless Court Program - A Way Forward