2017 marked a turning point for the United States. When President Trump declared the opioid crisis a national emergency, the federal government recognized what states such as Kentucky were experiencing firsthand: punitive approaches were not combatting addiction. These approaches were, however, spiking corrections costs. Lengthy prison sentences, originally intended for drug kingpins, have been doled out too frequently to low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. While some offenses are worthy of incarceration, there’s a vast number of people who could more accurately be defined as “addicts.” When that particular group of people leave prison—they’re likely to climb an uphill battle with a criminal record and an addiction that was inadequately treated, if treated at all. It rarely bodes well for their personal success or the public safety of the communities in which they return. Alternatively, Kentucky has achieved better results by opting for treatment-based approaches to addiction.

In the Bluegrass State, judges have the opportunity to divert low-level drug offenders away from incarceration and into treatment through drug court programs. A holistic approach, the programs hold participants accountable through monitoring, random drug testing, peer groups, and follow-ups upon graduation. When comparing a sample of drug court graduates to eligible defendants who did not participate in treatment, drug courts proved more effective at cutting both crime and costs. A 2015 study revealed drug court graduates were convicted of 50 percent fewer felonies two years after program completion than their counterparts. Over the same period, incarceration savings were over $2 million.

The results speak for themselves, but Kentucky’s use of drug courts as an alternative to incarceration is far from perfect. According to the state’s Justice Reinvestment Work Group, “Between 2013 and 2016, convictions for drug possession increased by 71 percent, with 47 percent of drug possession convictions being sentenced to prison in 2016. The result was 102 percent growth in the number of drug possession cases sent to prison over the last five years.”

For a state that has over 95 drug courts, those numbers don’t add up. When given the opportunity to cut costs to taxpayers with a more effective model for combatting drug addiction, Kentucky judges should act by diverting more low-level, nonviolent drug offenders to drug courts. In an op-ed on the economic case for drug treatment over jails, Warren County Circuit Judge Steve Wilson was quoted:

“Truly a tremendous driving force is the fact that economically it’s much better trying to treat people than it is to incarcerate people…Because at the end of incarceration without treatment we still have the same problem.”

Drug addiction warrants a public health response. When treated as a criminal justice problem, a person’s root issues often go unaddressed, and the costs of simply imprisoning them falls upon the taxpayer. It is both fiscally and socially irresponsible to incarcerate all low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. By pulling together the expertise of judges, police officers, and treatment professionals, drug courts can provide a more cost-effective, long-term solution to addiction. Neighboring states, and the federal government, should look to Kentucky’s success with drug courts as encouragement to kick the habit of trying to incarcerate our way out of a drug problem.

Photo: By Michael Clevenger, The Courier-Journal, Jefferson County, family drug court.