Law Enforcement Progress on Addiction Should Not be Rolled Back

Law Enforcement Progress on Addiction Should Not be Rolled Back

This guest blog is by James Norton MCJ. Currently an Adjunct Professor of Criminal Justice at South College and the Program Manager of the Medication Disposal System at the Vermont Department of Health Division of Substance Use Programs. James Norton has spent years working at the intersection of Justice and Health. In previous roles, he has served in substance use prevention, emergency services, and as Fellow at the New York State Senate. Utilizing data, public policy, and community engagement to drive social change. Past projects include studying the effects of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) on canine officers, medication disposal and addiction in rural communities, and implementing law enforcement- human services partnerships.

Many would identify the modern era of policing as challenging. In 2023, a Pew survey found 52% of U.S. residents rated the police as ‘only fair’ or ‘poor’ in protecting people from crime. This number has increased from 41%in June 2020 and 37 in 2016. This breakdown is not an ‘ether-or’, though only 7% rated the police as excellent. Half of the number of previous years, at 15% in 2020 and 16% in 2016. This perception has been drawn from property crime increases, usually tied to high economic pressure, but also political turmoil seen as an indicator and driver of violent crime. The pandemic drove both pressures, but multiple world events have also shifted public sense and perception on these issues.

The opioid epidemic and addictions have been a long-running challenge to the justice system at large. Many agencies respond to overdoses daily, and drug related offences rank among the highest causes of arrest. At over 100,000 drug related deaths per year, and over 100,000 alcohol related deaths per year, addiction is one of the largest threats to public safety of the modern era. It should not be dismissed that crime and substance use have a correlation.

Many domestic violence issues and homelessness issues are linked with substance use. Many people with substance use disorder turn to illegal activities for money. The focus of many police and corrections departments, contrary to popular perception, has been proactive. With many police and social agencies targeting the root cause of this criminality, namely the addiction, with treatment. The moniker ‘We cannot arrest our way out of this’ became a regular part of taking about ending the opioid epidemic.

For many departments, it was about demand reduction and treatment as the best way to address the crisis. There are numerous organizations like Police Assisted Addiction Recovery (PAARI), Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), the Law Enforcement Action Project, and Drug Courts; attempting to organize concrete law enforcement changes. A 2021 study found that a criminal suspect with a prior criminal record is approximately 29 times more likely than a suspect without a criminal record to be arrested by police. For example, a Vermont Court Diversion program found an 8.5% recidivism rate among those whole completed the program. SAMHSA estimates an $18 – $1 return on investment in school-based prevention activities.

Yet, the majority of criminal justice leaders have not followed suit. Even as the Urban Institute estimates a $3.36 benefit for every dollar spent on drug courts, the Whitehouse noted that only 47% of counties were served by drug courts in 2023. Despite the data showing 65% of those incarcerated meeting DSM-5 diagnostic standards of substance use disorder, a 2019 study noted less than 20% of local jails actually initiated Medication Assisted Treatment. States like Oregon, West Virginia, California, and Nevada, have all introduced mandatory additional sentences for fentanyl. An echo of the tough on crime mandatory minimums for crack cocaine, and a move that may be why a new synthetic opioid, Nitazeness, has started to be seen more frequently in testing sites.

At a time when federal leaders are willing to support justice reform and support treating those with substance use disorders, and at a time when the public feels that the police need to do better to protect the public from danger, a more joined-up approach would seem possible. Most Americans know a person affected by the opioid epidemic, and many police are saying themselves that they can’t arrest their way out of the overdose crisis. However, the general response to post-pandemic crime increases in the U.S. remains to arrest their way out of it.

The pandemic period was an opportunity to refocus law enforcement efforts back to their core mission, preventing the loss of life and protecting the public. The integration of community and social services has itself been a force multiplier which has benefited many people. The tools are there, and many Chiefs of Police, criminologists, and national organizations have provided the evidence-based practices. It is easy to return to what you know, especially when crime spikes, but we no longer have the luxury of ignorance.

James Norton. MCJ





Rob Watson

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