Countless state and local government bodies have taken action in response to the opioid crisis. However, the death toll continues to rise.
The New York Times estimated that 59,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2016, and based on projections by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 2017, an estimated 66,000 people will die of drug overdoses.
Data for this year is still incomplete because of the time it takes to conduct death and toxicology investigations. However, Bob Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the National Center for Health Statistics, says the 2017 estimates are alarming.
"The fact that the data is incomplete and they represent an increase is concerning," he said.
"Our current addiction crisis and especially the epidemic of opioid deaths will get worse before it gets better," President Donald Trump said as he formally declared the crisis a public health emergency in October.
One effort to tackle the nation’s exploding opioid crisis is legislative action to impose lighter sentences for drug offenders. The Justice Reinvestment Initiative — implemented in more than half of the states — has been praised as a forward-thinking solution to a host of criminal justice problems, including overcrowding of prisons and jails.
Reducing sentences for drug offenders opens prison beds for violent offenders and others the court deems likely to commit major crimes. Fewer inmates means lower prison costs, freeing up state dollars to reinvest in treatment programs and other long-term solutions to criminal activity.
However, the unforeseen consequence of lighter sentences is a nationwide drop in enrollment of highly successful drug courts.
Drug court is a minimum 12-month intensive, court-supervised program. Drug-dependent offenders are enrolled in drug courts in lieu of traditional justice system case processing. According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, drug court participants are provided with treatment services that help them get sober, and stay sober.
Participants are held accountable by the drug court through regular drug testing; frequent court appearances to enable the judge to review progress; and rewards for doing well or sanctions when not complying.
Researchers in a number of studies found that drug courts reduced recidivism. According to the National Institute of Justice, one study found that within a two-year period, the felony re-arrest rate decreased from 40 percent before the drug court to 12 percent after the drug court started in one county, and the felony re-arrest rate decreased from 50 percent to 35 percent in another county.
Few policymakers saw that removing the threat of a felony conviction — and a lengthy sentence — would inadvertently reduce the incentive for offenders to choose to participate in drug court.
According to Governing Magazine, drug court was an attractive alternative for someone facing a five-year sentence and a felony conviction on his or her record. Now according to Brent Kelsey, assistant director of the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, when the potential penalty is a few days or months in jail, drug offenders are less likely to enroll in a 12-month drug court.
In November 2014, California passed Proposition 47, The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act. The voter-approved referendum reduced penalties for drug possession and other non-violent felonies, including commercial burglary, forgery, grand theft and possession of a controlled substance.
San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael A. Ramos said that without the bargaining chip of lowering felonies to misdemeanors, Proposition 47 has erased any incentive to compel defendants into drug court.
"Our drug court’s basically non-existent," Ramos told the Victorville Daily Press.
The evidence is clear that drug courts have a positive impact.
Will the same be true for reforms driven by Justice Reinvestment Initiatives?
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.