Our View: Criminal justice system not the answer to drug epidemic

Kentucky lawmakers took a hard pass on reforming the state’s criminal justice system and helping drug addicts this session.

They largely ignored House Bill 94 from Rep. John Blanton (R-Salyersville), which would have restricted the use of money as a way to keep people otherwise qualified for release (and still considered innocent) in jail. It didn’t even get a first reading in the House.

They also didn’t move fast enough on House Bill 121 from Rep. Kim Moser (R-Taylor Mill), which would have increased Medicaid access to the opioid addiction recovery drug buprenorphine. The bill passed the House unanimously, but still needs two readings in the Senate with only one legislative day left. Kentucky legislators could have helped fewer people die from opioid addiction; instead, the bill to accomplish that is dead.

Kentucky’s repeated failures on this front are due to lawmakers’ ignorance, in some cases willful, of the facts about A) what our criminal justice system is supposed to do; and B) what kind of threat the drug epidemic represents.

The criminal justice system is an adversarial, punitive ecosystem, designed to hold and punish people for crimes. A key factor in whether such a system is useful or not is what actions we choose to define as crimes.

Throughout history, there have been appalling and terrible choices made about what counts as crime. Humans have punished, jailed and killed people for being minorities, being women, expressing sexuality and speaking against the government, just to hit a few highlights.

There’s another appalling, terrible choice being made today: We are punishing and jailing, and by proxy causing the deaths, of people who are addicted to drugs.

Today, if you said the words, “addiction is a disease,” in a room full of 100 people, you wouldn’t be surprised to see 60 heads nodding in agreement. And yet far greater majorities of us continue to assume without thinking that courtrooms and jail cells, not doctor’s offices and support groups, are where people using drugs belong.

If we treated any other disease like we treat addiction, it would look absurd on its face. We don’t make diabetics explain their life choices to a judge. We don’t throw cancer patients in jail. We treat the disease, we care for the person and we hope for the best.

Treating drug use as a medical problem rather than a crime problem is where we must arrive as a society if we are going to make recovery a probability rather than a possibility, if we are going to stop taxing ourselves to death to imprison millions, if we are going to rebuild a criminal justice system that actually deals with criminals and justice.

That destination seems a long way off right now. But there are fortunately many in the state who are pushing in the right directions for the right reasons, including Gov. Matt Bevin’s Justice and Public Safety Secretary, John Tilley.

“The best place to treat addiction is not a prison cell,” Tilley said during a seminar for 90 Fulbright scholars at the University of Kentucky this week. “And I still have policy makers in this state who think that is OK, when there is absolutely no evidence, no evidence that that approach enhances public safety.”

According to reporting on Tilley’s comments from Kentucky Health News, state prosecutors believe as many as 95 percent of the cases they deal with are related to addiction. Tilley pointed out that since 1970, Kentucky’s prison population has grown by 700 percent, while its actual population has grown by 38 percent.

And yet many in the state continue to oppose the growing number of syringe exchanges put in place by health departments to help keep dirty needles off the streets and introduce drug users to information about rehabilitation and treatment.

When Rep. Blanton’s failed bail reform bill was discussed in committee earlier this year, judges and prosecutors testified that they need money bail because they want to help drug addicts by forcing them to stay in jail until they sober up.

Clearly, there are still many who are stuck thinking the criminal justice system is part of the solution to the drug epidemic. The simple, hard truth is that it is not. It is adding to the problem.

“It’s a failed model,” Secretary Tilley said in his seminar. “Why in the world would we try to treat what I think is a public health nightmare with a criminal justice system that was never designed to do this?”