Standards on Substance Abuse: Introduction

Standards prepared by the Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Substance Abuse

Table of Contents


Definitions. For purposes of these standards, substance abuse is defined as chronic or habitual ingestion of drugs or alcohol to the extent that (i) such use substantially injures a person's health or substantially interferes with his or her social or economic functioning, or (ii) a person has lost the power of self-control over the use of drugs or alcohol. It is a chronic, relapsing disorder requiring ongoing rather than episodic intervention. It is predictable, progressive, symptomatic, and treatable.

As used in these standards, "substance abuse" includes abuse of alcohol as well as other legal and illegal drugs; the term "party" means both a party to a civil case and a defendant or convicted offender in a criminal case; and the term "court" means the court as an institution, including judges, clerks, probation officers, and other court personnel.

Effectiveness of court-ordered treatment. A key premise of these standards is that treatment is effective. (1) Court- mandated substance abuse treatment programs have been convincingly demonstrated to work. (2) Furthermore, research reveals that motivation improves as treatment progresses, and that abusers who are coerced into treatment fare just as well as, if not better than, those who enter into treatment voluntarily. (3) In fact, most substance abusers enter treatment not voluntarily, but rather because they are forced by such factors as a family intervention, pressure from a spouse, or the insistence of an employer or co-worker. Voluntary participation is rare, since denial is a symptom of the disease of substance abuse. One goal  of treatment is for the substance abuser to recover to the degree that he or she takes responsibility for his of her behavior. Treatment does not always work the first or even the second time, so that relapse should not be a cause for giving up on a substance abuser. In fact, strategies to prevent and address relapse are critical to the effectiveness of treatment. (See Standard XIII with respect to relapse prevention.)

Purpose. The following standards are intended to provide guidance in the implementation of the Supreme Judicial Court Policy Statement on Substance Abuse. They present a single orientation with which the judicial branch, including judges and all court personnel, can work together with prosecutors, the defense bar, corrections officials, and public and private treatment providers to address the problem of substance abuse which pervades the court system's caseload. Statistics from the Office of the Commissioner of Probation show that abuse of alcohol and other drugs is a factor in close to 80% of probation cases classified under the risk/need system. In civil cases, substance abuse is frequently cited as a significant factor in requests for orders of protection, civil commitments, CHINS petitions, eviction, divorce proceedings, contract disputes, custody, and child visitation and support cases. The standards contain recommended steps, consistent with public safety, for courts to take in responding effectively to substance abuse. The steps are stated broadly in order to leave room for each court to tailor implementation to local needs. The standards are intended not to create any new authority or powers in the courts, but rather to encourage   judges to use their existing authority to respond effectively to substance abuse, consistent with rules of evidence and other statutory, procedural and constitutional provisions.

Implementation of the steps contained in the standards will promote public safety, provide access to treatment, protect due process, reduce recidivism, ensure offender accountability, and maintain a responsible and productive work environment for court personnel. By embracing them, the courts will become leaders in the Commonwealth's efforts to stop the abuse of all addictive substances - alcohol and other drugs - and to curtail related criminal activities and social dysfunction. Public safety will be enhanced, because offenders who succeed in treatment are much less likely to re-offend. Substance abusers will be directed toward treatment, recovery, and more productive lives. Public funds will be saved, since treatment is significantly less expensive than incarceration. (4)

While much substance abuse treatment is provided in the community, there are some offenders, even among those suffering from substance abuse, who are so violent and anti-social that public safety demands incarceration. In these situations, treatment is not a substitute for incarceration. Public safety in the Commonwealth will be enhanced, however, by making treatment available to offenders while they are incarcerated.



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1. "[D]rug and alcohol dependence are treatable medical illnesses." A. Thomas McClellan, Charles P. O'Brien, Norman  Hoffman, and Herbert D. Kleber, Is Drug Dependence A Treatable Medical Illness: A Review of Recent Research, supported  by grants from the Department of Veterans Affairs, National Institute on Drug Abuse, and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. p. 30, 1998.
2. See for example, Corbett & Petersilia, "A Review of Research for Practitioners," Federal Probation, vol. 58, no.1, March 1994.
3. Singer, Amy. Effective Treatment for Drug-Involved Offenders: A Review and Synthesis for Judges and Other Court Personnel, produced by Education Development Center, Inc., 55 Chapel St., Newton, MA 02160, p 144 (May 1992).
4. Treatment Works: The Tragic Cost of Undervaluing Treatment in the Drug War - A Review of 15 Years of Research Findings on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Treatment Outcomes, published by NASADAD (National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors), March 1990, p. 25.

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