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New approach to battling drug addiction discussed during workshop

Times-Tribune - 11/19/2019

Nov. 19--ASHLAND, Ky. -- "If someone has a drug problem they don't need to be in the system, they need to be handled outside by mental health and treatment professionals," said John Tilley.

Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Secretary John Tilley believes it's time to demand a new approach that focuses on treatment and better outcomes for public safety while also saving lives.

On Friday during a workshop in Ashland, Kentucky, Tilley spoke to a group of journalists and individuals working in treatment facilities about drug addiction and the criminal justice system. The workshop, titled Covering Substance Abuse and Recovery, was sponsored by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky and Oak Ridge Associated Universities.

Tilley is a former journalist and lawmaker and continues to be an advocate for Kentucky's substance abuse disorder.

According to Tilley, roughly 3,000 people were in state prison in Kentucky in 1970. The population since then has grown only 39 percent, however our prison population had grown 702 percent.

Tilley would continue to engage attendees with staggering numbers throughout his address.

For example, there are 24,150 people in state custody not including those serving pre-trial time in county jails. That number has been growing in the days since, Tilley said.

"There's no logical explanation except for what you're here to talk about today," noted Tilley. "That is a war on drugs and a way to battle the public health epidemic."

Tilley suggests the state tweak its strategy or take a completely different approach. Tilley has been a prosecutor, a defense counselor and in some fashion, has worked in all three branches of government.

"We need to stop using a criminal justice hammer to address a public health nightmare," said Tilley about the matter.

Tilley noted that the drug problem in eastern Kentucky varies from the one in western Kentucky. He's seeing a multiple drug use problem or poly substance abuse problem now in western Kentucky.

And while we spent $5 million in 1970, today we spend $650 million in Kentucky on state corrections alone.

"We aren't funding things that return on investment," Tilley noted.

Tilley added that the state of Kentucky doesn't have a line item in the budget to pay for drug treatment or programming. However there is some grant money from the federal government, money that is reinvested from criminal justice savings with reduced incarceration rates.

"But there's no general fund for programming such as job skills or drug treatment," he said. "No upfront investment from the tax payer. Take it for what it's worth."

Tilley reiterated that the Commonwealth does however spend a lot of money warehousing people across the state. And nationally, the number of kids who have had a parent in jail or prison at some point in their childhood hovers around 5.1 million. Kentucky ranks near the top with a 2016 report revealing 135,000 children impacted.

Kentucky is also a true epicenter for incarcerated females

"We've decimated our population by criminalizing disease," said Tilley. "We've decimated our workforce and our families. No wonder we've had record numbers of children in foster care."

Over 1,300 Kentuckians died from drug overdoses in 2018. These numbers represent incredible suffering, said Tilley.

"The latest Harvard study says it takes four or five tries at drug treatment over eight years to gain one year of sobriety," said Tilley, raising another interesting point that doesn't get talked about. "There's an idea that we should give folks a second chance. The popular phrase. Addiction is a disease of relapse."

Tilley went on to talk about the definitions of possession and trafficking, noting that Kentucky has very liberal definitions.

"We can hold people accountable without state prison time," added Tilley. "Don't mistake justice. Justice doesn't always equal punishment, that can be an aspect of it."

Tilley said a focus should be on public safety and funding that, also noting later in his address that judges and prosecutors have too much discretion.

An advocate for legislative change, Tilley hopes the Commonwealth will modernize their funding threshold level and change the way traffickers are dealt with. Rather than spending the money on the back end Tilley hopes to eventually spend it on the front end.

As the numbers reveal, substance abuse disorders have become an economic problem in Kentucky, so much so that the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce recently held an Opioid Summit, the first meeting of its kind.

Jacqueline Pitts with the Kentucky Chamber also spoke Friday, informing guests how the crisis impacts business. As the opioid crisis is one of the biggest things impacting Kentucky, the Kentucky Chamber Workforce Center was created eventually starting an Opioid Response Program for Business.

Pitts said it was when she started looking at the statistics in relation to the workforce that she really began to see it as a business issue.

For example one of those statistics: 75 percent of adults with substance use disorder are actively in the workforce and 66 percents of adults who misuse opioids are employed.

"This is continuing to be a growing issue for the business community and for individuals who are employed," said Pitts. "They suffer in silence because they're scared to talk to their employer, family and friends. A lot of that is because they're scared of how that is going to impact their employment."

Pitts said businesses admit they don't know what to do and specifically don't know what to do for these employees in this situation. Thus the creation of the Opioid Response Program for Business. Pitts calls it a bridge between the two.

In this program, two staff members go out and help businesses, ensuring a drug-free workforce as well as a recovery friendly culture, while crafting policies around these goals.

"It's so important that we hear from individuals who have been through it," said Pitts. "It's important to highlight their determination This isn't something that defines itself by a certain socioeconomic class or anything."

Pitts said we don't even know who is suffering, they could be right beside us.


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