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Tennessee Seeks to Incentivize Offenders’ Successful Completion of Substance Abuse Treatment

| January 31, 2018

The human toll of the opioid crisis in Tennessee has been devastating. The Tennessee Department of Health reports that in 2016, there were 1,631 fatal overdoses in Tennessee, which is an increase from the 1,451 in 2015, and the 1,061 fatal overdoses in 2011.  Opioids were the cause of 71 percent of these overdoses.  Still, Tennessee is the second leading prescriber of opioids in America. As Governor Haslam has pointed out “more opioid prescriptions are written than there are people living in Tennessee, with more than 1 million prescriptions left over.”

On January 22nd, 2018, Governor Haslam announced his “Tennessee Together” initiative to combat the opioid crisis in Tennessee.  Among the changes proposed Governor’s comprehensive initiative includes reforming the healthcare industry’s prescribing practice, expanding access to substance abuse treatment programs, including naltrexone to decrease opioid dependence and the future risk of overdose, and increasing education on the risks of neonatal abstinence syndrome.  He also seeks to reinforce the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s efforts to catch those trafficking opioids, particularly Fentanyl and Fentanyl analogues.

I appreciate Governor Haslam’s leadership in proposing this initiative, and I especially applaud his focus on treatment for offenders who suffer from substance abuse disorder. They have not been left out.  Instead of simply warehousing drug-addicted offenders within the Department of Corrections, Governor Haslam’s plans to expand “residential treatment and services for opioid dependence.” This plan includes 512 additional treatment beds. Moreover, those inmates who successfully complete an intensive residential treatment programs will receive a 60-day earned compliance credit. The Department of Corrections is also supportive of legislation that extends compliance credit to probationers who successfully complete drug treatment. Governor Haslam’s approach is thoughtful, going beyond simply making the treatment available to inmates suffering from substance abuse disorder and giving them a reason to get better. The credit will serve as an incentive for offenders to not only seek, but to successfully complete treatment. The benefit to successful treatment extends beyond the offender who receives relief of a disease, to include the overall safety of the public. This is especially true when the driver of the criminal behavior is addiction.  We know that 95 percent of offenders will eventually return to their communities throughout Tennessee.  Governor Haslam’s proposal seeks to ensure more of these folks return whole, and with a real opportunity to live their lives without the albatross of addiction.

It is my hope that the legislature follows Governor Haslam’s lead.  Otherwise, this scourge will continue to envelope our State.

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JULIE WARREN is a graduate of Marshall University and of Regent University School of Law. She also attended Georgetown Law Center as a visiting student. While in law school, she clerked on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Julie served four years at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. After a few years in private practice as a civil defense litigator, Julie returned to public service and began her work in the Office of the West Virginia Attorney General where she primarily served as an appellate advocate for the State of West Virginia and as legislative counsel to the Attorney General.

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