What are Specialty Courts?

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.

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.

The use of specialty courts has increased significantly in the last few years throughout the country.  Specialty courts focus on substance use disorder (drug courts), mental health issues (mental health courts) and veterans’ issues (veterans treatment courts).   

Massachusetts has several types of specialty court sessions:

See a list of all specialty court sessions

Learn more about Massachusetts Specialty Court programs

Center of Excellence for Specialty Courts: The Trial Court has established the Massachusetts Center of Excellence for Specialty Courts to standardize the suoperation of specialty courts throughout the state. To learn more about the Center of Excellence, please visit www.macoe.org.

Specialty Courts Locations

Massachusetts has 23 adult drug courts and three juvenile drug courts. 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, Quincy and Worcester.

The Boston Municipal Court holds four drug court sessions in Charlestown, Dorchester, East Boston, and South Boston.

Juvenile drug courts operate in New Bedford, Fall River and Taunton.

There are five veterans’ treatment courts in Massachusetts:

There are four mental health courts within the Boston Municipal Court Department, and four within the District Court Department in Cambridge,  Plymouth, Springfield, and Quincy.

Other Specialty Courts

There are two specialty court sessions that operate within the Probate and Family Court Department:

Drug Courts

Drug Courts: Facts and Statistics

Adult Drug Court

Drug courts address the issues underlying criminal behavior, such as drug or alcohol substance use disorder and/or mental illness. Drug Courts provide intensive, supervised probation and mandatory treatment, as well as random drug testing with progress monitored by a supervising probation officer. The court works with treatment providers, which provide clinical assessments, develop and monitor treatment placements, and identify ancillary counseling, case management and outreach services.

Check out the Adult Drug Court Manual  pdf format of Adult Drug Court Manual

Juvenile Drug Court

Massachusetts Juvenile drug courts follow the Reclaiming Futures model, a proven methodology that enlists the child’s family, school, and community support systems to create an individualized treatment program that addresses the child’s substance use disorder and antisocial behavior.

Check out the Juvenile Drug Court Manual  pdf format of Juvenile Drug Court Manual
file size 3MB

Mental Health Courts (Recovery with Justice)

Mental health court sessions include a court-imposed condition of probation for defendants who have serious mental illness or co-occurring mental health or substance use disorders. The sessions provide an alternative to incarceration through case management, and by linking to community-based services with probation.  Probationers must participate in community-based treatment for a minimum of three months along with regular reviews by the specialty court team.  

Participation in the mental health court is for people placed on pre-trial probation or post-disposition probation, and who have serious mental health issues or co-occurring mental health and alcohol/substance use disorders.

Working with a mental health clinician, the probation officer assigned to the mental health session identifies the particular mental health and social needs of each participant. The treatment provider creates a service plan which includes referrals to mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment when appropriate, as well as housing, educational and employment opportunities.

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

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. The sessions aim to improve 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.

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.

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

Franklin County Family Drug Court

The Franklin Probate and Family Court in Greenfield offers a special Family Drug Court session to help families in which a parent is struggling with substance use disorder. It is based on the premise that families are systems, and that the illness of one member has profound effects on others in that family.  This voluntary, phased program provides parents, children and their caregivers access to community-based treatment and services. The Family Drug Court team includes the judge, probation officer, case manager, clinician, and treatment providers.

One of the goals of the program is to reduce the stigma associated with substance use disorder, by helping families understand that substance use disorder is a disease that can be managed.

By agreement of the parties, the underlying case – custody, guardianship, divorce, and/or visitation – is put on hold while the family seeks treatment. The court will provide for contact between the recovering parent and the children that is in the children’s best interests.

For more information, please contact the Franklin Probate and Family Court Probation Department at 413-774-2229.

Hampshire County Family Resolutions Specialty Court

The Family Resolutions Specialty Court (FRSC) is a unique problem-solving court at the Hampshire Probate and Family Court. It is a voluntary program that provides divorcing and separating parents the opportunity to resolve their differences in a child-centered way and with less conflict.

Using a team-based approach, every family in the FRSC receives assistance. There is a lawyer for the children and a mental health professional for the family. A Probation Officer also guides the family through the process. There are no trials or motion sessions. Instead, the case proceeds via a series of conferences in which all members of the team – the parents, their lawyers, and the judge – work together to resolve the parents' differences.  

Through the FRSC, families are also referred to community support services such as: family and child therapy; substance abuse treatment; financial planning; employment, housing, fuel, and transportation assistance; early childhood intervention; and mediation.

The FRSC is available for parents with attorneys and those who are representing themselves. Interested parents and attorneys should contact the Hampshire Probate and Family Court’s Probation Department at 413-586-8503 for more information.

Other Specialized Court Sessions

Firearm Sessions

Business Litigation Session of the Superior Court

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.