Tennessee Judge Receives Highest Judicial Honor For His Work On The Opioid Epidemic

August 26, 2019

Tennessee Judge Duane Slone is the 2019 recipient of the National Center for State Courts’ (NCSC) William H. Rehnquist Award for Judicial Excellence, one of the highest judicial honors in the country. Judge Slone, of the Circuit Court in the Fourth Judicial District, is being recognized for his ground-breaking work helping people with opioid use disorder. The award will be presented to Judge Slone by the Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts, Jr. during a ceremony at the U.S. Supreme Court November 21. He is the first Tennessee judge to win the prestigious award.

The Rehnquist Award honors a state court judge who demonstrates the qualities of judicial excellence, including integrity, fairness, open-mindedness, knowledge of the law, professional ethics, creativity, sound judgment, intellectual courage, and decisiveness.

Judge Slone possesses each of those qualities, and more, said Tennessee State Court Administrator Deborah Taylor Tate. “Judge Slone has demonstrated outstanding judicial leadership, personal and professional integrity, and pure heart in using his platform as a judge to combat the opioid crisis … He has been an innovator, an initiator, a collaborator, and a visionary … and most importantly, his numerous systemic changes have saved lives.”

Combatting the opioid epidemic is not just a professional commitment for Judge Slone. It’s personal.  In 2011, Judge Slone and his wife, Gretchen, adopted an infant son who was born suffering from withdrawals as a result of his birth mother’s opioid use. “That’s when I did a deep dive into this problem. I was motivated by Joseph.”

Although he had presided over drug court for years, once Joseph came into his life, Judge Slone gained a much different perspective about addiction. He sought information from medical professionals who explained substance use disorder as a chronic brain disorder. “Simply put, my child’s mother experienced cravings for opioids that were 10 times more powerful than my cravings for food … for Joseph’s mother, her opioid use was a matter of survival,” he said. 

This knowledge and understanding shaped Judge Slone’s approach to helping those who come into his court. “We must understand that addiction is a preventable, treatable condition and people recover. We must go as far upstream as possible, meet people where they are, and provide hope and healing. I believe it is our duty as judges to find a way to help them.”

Judge Slone’s commitment and approach have transformed how many Tennessee courts – and courts around the country – have become part of the solution in the opioid crisis. He has identified three steps all courts should implement, regardless of charges people face.

  • Encourage universal screening for substance use disorders of everyone processed into jail.  
  • Conduct clinical assessments at the earliest opportunity and provide rapid connections to court-approved treatment providers and support services.
  • Use the court’s leverage to keep the individuals engaged in treatment and recovery for as long as it takes.

These steps have been incorporated into various programs and initiatives Judge Slone has created or helped found, including:

Tennessee Recovery Oriented Compliance Strategy (TN ROCS). Drug Recovery Courtswork, but not all individuals who have drug-related cases qualify for it. TN ROCS serves individuals who have high behavioral health needs but, typically, are considered to have a lower risk of recidivism than Drug Recovery Courts. This docket requires participants to comply with their behavioral health treatment plan, drug screenings, and to appear in court to review their progress, and it connects them to resources that emphasize recovery over incarceration. Since being established in 2013, TN ROCS has proven successful on many levels, including: decreased jail population, reduction in property crimes, and an increase in healthy births with approximately 90 percent of pregnant mothers maintaining custody of those children.  

Recovery Cabin. In 2014, Judge Slone established the Recovery Cabin, which allows up to 11 women to live while in recovery. Priority is given to pregnant women with opioid use disorder Treatment and recovery support are provided. More than 70 women – pregnant and non-pregnant -- have lived at the Recovery Cabin and more than 20 healthy babies have been born to residents.

Partnership with the Tennessee Department of Health. Judge Slone’s court in 2014 partnered with the Tennessee Department of Health to implement a neonatal abstinence syndrome prevention initiative that focuses on empowering people in jails and on probation with information about the dangers of in utero drug exposure and an opportunity to get services, including long-term birth control. Since its inception, the program is credited with reducing the incidences of newborns suffering from NAS by 60 percent in pilot counties. The initiative is so successful, it now includes education about the spread of infectious diseases associated with illegal drug use and how to obtain services such as Hep C treatment and other harm reduction services.

Judge Slone chairs the Appalachian-Midwestern Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative, established in 2016 and includes eight states; the Tennessee Judicial Opioid Initiative; and is a member of the National Judicial Opioid Task Force.

Judge Slone was elected to the bench in 1998 and has been reelected in each subsequent election. He co-founded the Fourth Judicial District Drug Recovery Court in 2009 and co-founded a Veterans’ Treatment Track in 2015. Before serving on the bench, he was assistant District Attorney General and Drug Trafficking Prosecutor for the Fourth Judicial District.