Eating chicken and passing legislation

Published 9:14 am Thursday, March 8, 2018

Local, state efforts both needed to repair damage from opioids, over-jailing


Guest columnist

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Last week, in the old Perryville Presbyterian Church in the historic community of Perryville, yet another group of our local community citizens came together to learn how to respond to drug overdoses. They listened to trainers from Voices of Hope in Lexington give instructions on how to administer Naloxone, the medication antidote to opioids. They listened to the stories of a person in long-term recovery, and a family member of someone in long-term recovery from opioid addiction. They picked up free Naloxone kits. They shared their concerns about the current addiction crisis. And, they ate chicken together.

The man in recovery who told his story shared that he had spent some time in Boyle County at Northpoint, for drug-related offenses. Now, after several years in recovery, he is a professional counselor working with others to achieve recovery, gainful employment, and a meaningful and productive life. Some of those hearing his story were members of local law enforcement — they arrest people like he used to be every day. Officers always hope that they will see more like him who make successful transitions out of jails and prisons. It is, however, most often not the case.

Kentucky has the opportunity to turn that around. And we have huge pressures to do it quickly. If we continue with no changes in policies and laws, Kentucky’s prison population is projected to grow 19 percent in the next decade.  That would require about 4,400 additional beds, and would put an added financial burden of at least $600 million dollars on taxpayers. In short, with no changes, we are looking at running out of space in less than two years. Building more prisons and jails or paying for private prisons appears almost impossible given the status of local and state budgets.

In 2016, our state had the second-highest incarceration rate for women and the ninth-highest overall incarceration rate in the country. Those numbers were driven by drug possession charges, big increases in low-level Class D felony offenses, and an increase in parole revocations. A large fraction of those with drug possession charges have substance-use disorders and co-occurring mental health problems. Many of the incarcerated women and men have dependent children.

Last year, to address these critical challenges, Gov. Bevin and members of the legislative and judicial branches established the CJPAC Justice Reinvestment Work Group. They looked at lots of data and studied what has been shown to work to make the needed changes. Their recommendations to reduce our prison population, increase public safety, and improve the lives of individuals and families are now basically included in House Bill 396. Introduced by Representatives Moser, Nemes and Dossett, the Justice Reinvestment Bill has the support of significant advocacy groups in the state.  

Some of the stipulations included in this bill include: targeting jail and prison beds for the more serious and violent offenders, improving pretrial release processes, minimizing financial barriers to reentry after incarceration, channeling resources from cost-savings back to local county governments to support improved treatment and services for persons with misdemeanors, while honoring the priority rights of victims. Also included is a strong requirement for ongoing evaluation of the effectiveness of these reforms over time. The bill sponsors estimate that the passage and implementation of this legislation could save over $335 million in state corrections costs through 2027.

Although certainly not the only answer to Kentucky’s substance misuse and addiction problems today, House Bill 396 offers an excellent opportunity to make a real difference in communities across the state. For some time, we’ve been going in the wrong direction with increasing costs and worsening outcomes.  It’s time to stop doing what doesn’t work.

When we begin to see the results of criminal justice reform, maybe people will gather in communities like Perryville and Danville and Junction City, and eat chicken together with more hope for the next generation of Kentuckians.

Kathy L. Miles is coordinator for the Boyle County Agency for Substance Abuse Policy Inc.