Philadelphia, PA - The U.S. Department of Justice has found that Pennsylvania’s state courts violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when its courts prohibited or limited access to medications for opioid use disorder – specifically methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone. The letter of findings, which was published on Wednesday, detailed discriminatory practices in a wide array of court-supervised settings in the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania, including drug courts, mental health courts, DUI courts, probation, and parole.
The DOJ’s investigation was initiated after a complainant represented by the Legal Action Center was forced to taper off of buprenorphine under the Jefferson County Court of Common Pleas policy prohibiting “any opiate based treatment medication.” The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania had fielded a similar complaint from another individual in Jefferson County. The two advocacy groups urged the court to rescind its policy, which it did in 2018.
The federal investigation and its subsequent findings show that several courts in Pennsylvania have engaged in similar practices, in violation of the ADA. Specifically, the DOJ determined that these policies and practices were “rooted in stereotypes and myths, rather than science,” were “not justified by any individualized medical or security assessments,” and “directly conflicted with medical guidance on (opioid use disorder) medication.”
“I feel vindicated,” said LAC’s complainant. “Where I’m from, there’s unfortunately a lot of people who have been affected by the drug epidemic, and, when the court put that order in place, it affected a lot of people. I knew that I had to stand up for what was right, and I’m super grateful that the DOJ stepped in and for everything that LAC did to help me. When I first heard this news, I got choked up because I would have been dead. Suboxone saved my life - there’s no doubt in my mind. There are so many people that need the same help and would benefit from medication for opioid use disorder. We don’t need to bury anyone else.”
"With a record 100,000 overdose deaths in the last year, it is crucial that courts facilitate, rather than hinder, access to life-saving medications for people with opioid use disorder. This letter of findings, when joined with the DOJ’s December 2021 settlement of similar claims against the Massachusetts Parole Board, shows that courts and community supervision entities around the country that engage in such discriminatory practices need to stop now, " explains Sally Friedman, LAC's senior vice president of legal advocacy.
"Evidence overwhelmingly shows that medication for opioid use disorder helps people avoid illicit drug use and overdose death and reduces involvement in the criminal legal system,” states Rebekah Joab, a staff attorney for LAC. “Rather than leaving treatment decision-making to individuals and their clinicians, some courts prohibit addiction medication based on their own biases and stigma. These findings put courts on notice that such practices not only violate federal anti-discrimination law, but put individuals at great risk of multiple harmful outcomes."
"Pennsylvania recorded the fourth highest number of drug overdose deaths in the nation from May 2020 to April 2021,” said Sara Rose, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “We hope that Pennsylvania courts will work with the DOJ to ensure that people with opiate use disorder receive the treatment they need and are entitled to receive.”
The DOJ has given the Pennsylvania court administrators seven days to respond.