Many people have asked me what a judge can do to help solve the opioid crisis facing Brown County. Some are small business owners who can’t find enough reliable employees who are not coming to work high. Others, like me, experienced the loss of a family member. My niece, Lodi Seastrom, died from a heroin overdose in 2007. When the question is “What should we do to solve the problem of drug addiction and overdose in our community?” I answer, “Everything we can.” But the problem and its solutions are not simple.
The problem of drug abuse is not new, but it appears to be getting worse, and it appears to be hitting ever closer to home. Much of the historical response to the problem has been a law enforcement model. A lynchpin of the law enforcement policy was mandatory minimum sentencing. A 1997 study by the Rand Corporation concluded that
Mandatory minimum sentences are not justifiable on the basis of cost-effectiveness at reducing cocaine consumption, cocaine expenditures, or drug-related crime. Mandatory minimums reduce cocaine consumption less per million taxpayer dollars spent than does spending the same amount on enforcement under the previous sentencing regime. And either type of incarceration approach reduces consumption less than does putting heavy users through treatment programs, per million dollars spent. Similar results are obtained if the objective is to reduce spending on cocaine or cocaine-related crime. A principal reason for these findings is the high cost of incarceration.
Caulkins, Jonathan P., C. Peter Rydell, William Schwabe, and James Chiesa, Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences: Throwing Away the Key or the Taxpayers' Money?. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1997. https://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR827.html.
In my 32 years as a lawyer, I have personally witnessed the ineffectiveness and harm of the law enforcement approach. If you want to hear more details please contact me directly.
One problem with a law enforcement approach is that it demonizes anyone associated with drugs. These are not evil people determined to hurt anyone around them. These powerful poisons take over the brain. Addiction affects people from all walks of life and from all economic classes. These people are our friends and family. If a family member is addicted, our first inclination is to help them get out of the addiction. We don’t want to penalize them only to see the addiction continue.
Most careful studies of the problem show a public health approach will be more effective.
[E]xperts put the solutions to the drug overdose crisis in four main categories: treatment (particularly highly effective medications for opioid addiction), demand (such as community development to address the “root causes” of addiction), harm reduction (including naloxone and safe injection sites), and supply (meaning, in large part, efforts to reduce opioid painkiller overprescription).
Lopez, German, “30 experts were asked how they’d fight the opioid crisis. None mentioned a border wall.” Vox (Feb. 14, 2018), available at https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/2/14/17011646/opioid-epidemic-trump-border-wall. See also, Pollack, Harold A., and Reuter, Peter, “Does tougher enforcement make drugs more expensive?” Addiction (2014), available at http://faculty.publicpolicy.umd.edu/sites/default/files/reuter/files/pollack_and_reuter.pdf.
Our criminal justice system should be operated to correct and prevent bad behavior. The focus should be on the behavior, not the mental illness or the addiction. There is a difference between a person who is addicted and a person who commits crimes. It is when the addiction leads to criminal behavior that the courts should get involved. I would not be afraid to penalize the addict whose problem has escalated to point of stealing (or worse) to support the addiction. The person who is selling drugs solely to profit off other people’s addictions should face a stiff penalty. The difficulty is where the addiction is so strong that a person turns to selling drugs to maintain his own addiction.
Here in Brown County, other candidates for Judge have advocated for a “drug court.” I applaud their efforts, and agree that is one effort that should be made. A drug court changes the focus away from penalties and toward overcoming the addiction.
I want to caution, however, that a drug court cannot be implemented unilaterally by the judge. A drug court, as another candidate pointed out, must get the approval of the Indiana Supreme Court. To get that approval, additional staff with expertise in addiction therapy and social work must be hired. See Problem-Solving Court Rules Section 12, available at https://www.in.gov/judiciary/pscourts/files/pscourts-psc-rules.pdf. The Brown County Circuit Court has an annual budget of $329,000, and that covers the existing staff and programs. To get additional funding, the Brown County Council must vote to appropriate the money. See Ind. Code § 33-23-16-22, available at http://iga.in.gov/legislative/laws/2017/ic/titles/033#33-23-16-22.
Drug courts are not new. In 1992, the Indiana General Assembly enacted a law to allow local courts to administer an Alcohol and Drug Services Program, which is a similar program designed to attack the problems of substance abuse. See Ind. Code 12-23-14, available at http://iga.in.gov/legislative/laws/2017/ic/titles/012#12-23-14-1. If these programs were having any meaningful success, we would not be seeing the opioid crisis today. I believe the reason they have not succeeded is the inability or unwillingness to provide adequate funding.
I served on Drug-Free Marion County for three years. That is the local coordinating council that distributes the money collected from persons convicted of alcohol and drug offenses. See Ind. Code § 33-37-5-9, available at http://iga.in.gov/legislative/laws/2017/ic/titles/033#33-37-5-9, and Ind. Code § 5-2-11-1, available at http://iga.in.gov/legislative/laws/2017/ic/titles/005#5-2-11-1. Marion County collected about $350,000 per year, and it was not nearly enough to attack this major problem. Brown County collects about $12,000 per year from those court fees. That is barely enough to pay for the first three months of one person’s addiction treatment. State law still requires at least 25% of those funds to be spent on law enforcement. See Ind. Code § 5-2-11-5, available at http://iga.in.gov/legislative/laws/2017/ic/titles/005#5-2-11-5. The Rand study shows this is the least-effective use of the money.
I just had an interesting discussion with the Brown County Auditor. State law prevents our local county council from increasing the aggregate property tax burden in the county. If the county council devotes more funding to fight addiction, it will force the county council to cut other programs. When the council is faced with other costly problems such as paying to pave and maintain the county’s roads, they have a difficult choice to make.
Once we recognize the complexity of this problem, and the interplay between the various governmental bodies, it is important for us to demand effective action, not just from judges, but from all the government agencies involved: the police, the prosecutor, the funding bodies, such as the county council, the health department, and the schools. Although a judge’s ability to solve this problem is limited, a judge has an important voice of leadership in the community.
No person who has ever lost a family member to overdose will ever say this problem is not important. Those who might not have experienced such a direct loss still know addiction hurts the community. I know that, if I am elected Judge, I will do whatever I can to help solve this important problem.