Soon after taking the bench in 2004, Yellowstone County District Court Judge Ingrid Gustafson noticed a troubling pattern. Many defendants passing through her criminal court in Billings, Montana, were repeat offenders with a substance use disorder that incarcerations had done little to address.
Six years later, Gustafson founded the Yellowstone County Adult Drug Treatment Court to give offenders a chance to complete an addiction treatment program rather than serving prison time for nonviolent felonies. “They’re not really criminals,” Gustafson said. “They’re people with a bad disease, and they need help managing that disease.”
One of the drug court’s first cases involved a middle-aged woman who had spent 15 years in and out of jail for forgery, drug possession, and other crimes related to her methamphetamine addiction. Gustafson assigned the woman to an intensive outpatient treatment provider and tracked her progress in weekly court sessions.
After two stints in the drug court, with a brief relapse in between, the woman completed the program in 2016. While her struggle is not over, Gustafson said, the program’s structure has kept her substance abuse at bay. She is now employed, working full-time as a peer counselor at a drug dependency treatment facility. Last year, she was released from probation for the first time in more than two decades.
Dozens of similar cases convinced Gustafson of the importance of understanding the science behind defendants’ actions. In May 2018, she traveled to a two-day judicial seminar on emerging issues in neuroscience. Organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and hosted by the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, a joint venture of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, the conference covered everything from adolescent brain development and dementia to the neuroscience of pain and violence.
The seminar was one of two that AAAS’s Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program has convened each year since 2006. The idea for the seminars came in 2005, when the Dana Foundation, a private philanthropic organization that supports brain research, came to AAAS looking for a way to expand its work beyond financing scientific studies. The two organizations forged a partnership to give federal, state, and administrative law court judges an opportunity to learn from researchers how advances in neuroscience can inform courtroom decision-making.
Gustafson was impressed by a lecture on the neuroscience of addiction, particularly as it relates to the ongoing opioid crisis, declared a “nationwide public health emergency” in October 2017 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Though Montana had not been as hard-hit by opioid addiction as other states, Gustafson was concerned that the highly addictive class of drugs, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found responsible for 68% of all fatal overdoses in the United States in 2017 alone, could intensify in her state. She sought a way to make her judicial colleagues aware of the epidemic’s causes, as well as evidence-based interventions to combat it.
Now an associate justice of the Montana Supreme Court and chair of its education committee, Gustafson collaborated with AAAS to bring scientific guidance on the opioid crisis to the state’s judicial community. On May 9, at a scenic resort adjacent to Glacier National Park in Whitefish, 42 of the state’s district and supreme court judges attended presentations on the causes, neurological effects, and treatments of opioid addiction. It was the first AAAS judicial seminar dedicated to a single topic within the field of neuroscience. AAAS now plans to transform the pilot conference into three more opioid-focused seminars over the next year.
“There are certainly some judges out there who believe you can incarcerate addiction out of people,” Gustafson said. “The more you educate folks on the science behind why just sitting in a jail cell doesn’t work so well, and what kind of incentives you need to build into your system, and what we can reasonably expect people with brain damage to do within six months to a year to two years — it’s bound to help.”