In this month’s report, we explain why Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ tough sentencing directive for low-level drug crimes is the wrong way to fight drug abuse and underscores the Trump administration’s mixed messages on the opioid crisis. Our series on statewide initiatives examines Kentucky’s efforts to contain its opioid epidemic and one of the nation’s highest rates of overdose deaths.
Memo to Trump: Locking Up Drug Addicts Won’t End the Opioid Epidemic
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions told federal prosecutors in May to impose harsh, mandatory minimum sentences for even low level and nonviolent drug crimes, scuttling Obama-era leniency toward offenders not associated with drug gangs or trafficking. Sessions’ policy reversal signals a return to the failed mass-incarceration strategies deployed during the “war on drugs” in the 1980s and 1990s, and is especially misguided as the nation grapples with a devastating opioid epidemic.
We are concerned about the potential consequences of a new dragnet of stricter enforcement and punishment for less serious drug offenses committed by substance abusers. This doesn’t mean we are soft on crime: by all means, put drug-dealing kingpins in prison. Instead of locking addicts in prison, we can leverage the interaction with the criminal justice system to provide them with opportunities for recovery.
Tough, mandatory minimum sentencing removes the possibility for creative sentencing by judges to place addicts in programs as an alternative to incarceration. Following the Obama guidelines, more than 30 states have already overhauled sentencing laws, introducing limited prison terms, expanding drug treatment programs and drug courts, which place most offenders in treatment.
Addicts require encouragement and most frequently coercion to enter treatment, and courts can help. Vanessa Vitolo, a recovering heroin addict who told her harrowing story to President Trump and his new opioid commission, is typical. As a young woman she got hooked on drugs, cycled in and out of jail and found herself homeless and feeling “lost in every aspect of the word,” she recalled. With help from her parents, and sentencing from a drug court, Vitolo finally received long-term treatment. Today, three years later, she is stable and in recovery, with a job and an apartment.
Vanessa’s story highlights the long road to recovery, and the role the criminal justice system can play. Let’s use guidelines for sentencing to get more addicts into treatment. It is also vital to create more treatment units within our prisons, and establish support systems outside prison so that recovering addicts are not just let on the street. This makes sense to maintain their health and safety as well as that of society.
President Trump’s opioid commission has a chance to be forward thinking and take advantage of decades of experience that the criminal justice system has had with treatment providers. Sessions’ sentencing directive is regressive. Instead of pounding the table for law and order, we need to continue the integration of the criminal justice system and substance abuse treatment programs into a comprehensive life-enhancing strategy.
The States Take Action: Kentucky
Like other Central Appalachian states, Kentucky has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic. There were 1,248 fatal overdoses in 2015, a 16 percent increase over the year before; the death rate was 29.9 per 100,000 population, the nation’s third highest. Contributing factors include poverty, complex injuries suffered by coal minors, and lax prescribing practices. Kentucky is one of 13 states in which the annual number of opioid painkiller prescriptions exceeds the number of residents. In Clay County, for example, with a population of 21,000, pharmacies dispensed more than 2.8 million doses of opioid pain killers in 2016, or 150 doses for every man, woman and child in the area, according to a Kaiser Health News report.
In early 2017,Governor Matt Bevin outlined Kentucky’s anti-opioid strategy at the National Prescription Drug Use and Heroin Summit. The plan includes a new law limiting opioid painkiller prescriptions to a 3-day supply; education programs on neonatal abstinence syndrome (a massive problem in the state); and ensuring over the counter access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone. To address an acute lack of treatment beds, Kentucky has applied for a waiver from the Medicaid rule that prohibits federal dollars being used for addiction treatment facilities with more than 16 beds. A 2016 survey by television station WCPO found that in eight counties in northern Kentucky some 30,000 people needed substance abuse treatment, but that there was only capacity for one-third of them in the region.
Obtaining a Medicaid waiver to the 16-bed limit provision will eventually increase the number of desperately needed long-term treatment beds, but this will take time. Meanwhile, threatened cuts to Medicaid funding and the possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by Congress would have an immediate and devastating impact on the state’s large low-income population (nearly 440,000 residents joined the Medicaid rolls under ACA). While Medicaid expansion did make some opioid drugs more available legally, it also made treatment more accessible, a story in the Atlantic magazine pointed out. In Clay County, where 60 percent of residents receive Medicaid benefits, opioid overdose deaths fell from 27 in 2011 to 4 in 2016 due in part to increased treatment options and the wider availability of drugs like suboxone, which reduces symptoms of opiate addiction and withdrawal. Changes to Medicaid funding and eligibility would imperil these important gains as Kentucky addresses its opioid crisis.