Fight against drug addiction must include help from criminal justice system

Published 12:30 pm Tuesday, November 10, 2020

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At a moment when many people are finding it difficult to see eye-to-eye with their fellow Kentuckians, there’s one thing we all can agree on: we must keep fighting to end addiction in the commonwealth. This is a public health crisis that has only worsened due to the challenges of the last eight months, with substance use and overdose deaths trending in the wrong direction.

However, there is good news. Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Kentucky public officials remain committed to breaking the vicious cycle of addiction. In November, the state will submit a transformative proposal to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that, if approved, will expand access to substance use disorder treatment among some of our society’s most vulnerable and at-risk individuals: those in our criminal justice system.

Substance use disorders have made their way into every nook and cranny of our state, including our prisons and jails. The treatment providers, business leaders and recovery advocates who make up RECON KY, a consortium for long-term recovery in Kentucky, have seen this firsthand. The reality is we cannot effectively address the addiction crisis without investing in treatment and recovery resources for individuals in prison, many of whom are there in the first place because their substance use disorders have gone untreated.

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Research has also linked well-designed, carefully implemented, in-prison addiction treatment programs to numerous positive outcomes, including reductions in relapse, recidivism and inmate misconduct, while increasing levels of education and employment when participants return to the community. Every one of us is better off living in a Kentucky in which fewer people are engaged in dangerous, sometimes illegal behaviors and more community members are leading healthy, productive lives.

After all, this is not just a health care issue; it’s an economic one, as well. By investing in health care coverage and treatment for incarcerated individuals now, we can prevent increased costs and additional negative outcomes down the road.

Just think about a person who receives substance use disorder treatment while in prison and is then connected with recovery resources and services as she transitions back into society, versus someone who doesn’t because she lacks the proper health care coverage and leaves prison without a health plan and support system. A year out, the latter is much more likely to have relapsed or be back in jail, while the former might be starting a new job or enrolling in school.

Providing these services is good policy and the right thing to do for our fellow Kentuckians. Our public officials certainly kept these factors in mind when crafting this proposal, which doesn’t only account for the health care needs of individuals “behind the wall,” but ensures they are set up for success after they’ve completed their time. Both pieces are critically important and reflect the continuum of care needed for people to reach long-term recovery.

All Kentuckians struggling with substance use disorders, including those in the criminal justice system, need our support. These are our family members, neighbors, coworkers and friends. We applaud our public officials for not only recognizing this, but acting on it, as well.

When it comes to ending addiction in Kentucky, we certainly still have our work cut out for us — but with the submission of this new proposal, we’re one step closer to getting it done.

Tim Robinson is CEO of Addiction Recovery Care and a founding member of RECON KY, a coalition bringing together stakeholders from all parts of the recovery system to advocate for a comprehensive, long-term approach to recovery. Ben Chandler is president/CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, which serves as one of the founding organizations for RECON KY.