The Tennessean recently published an article that highlighted “one unexpected effect of Tennessee’s opioid crisis”: women suffering from addiction are serving longer jail terms than their male counterparts—six months longer in some cases. The article contends that this disparity “is a result of an opioid crisis that is ensnaring far more women than drug court judges have seen in the past”—women who must then wait longer periods for an open spot at a residential drug treatment center as a term of their probation. Profiled was one woman who was still lingering in jail ten months after her male cohorts had been released. Her complaint was that, “the longer I am here, the longer it’s going to take me to finally finish probation and finish the program and get back to trying to live a productive life.”
Davidson County Drug Court Judge Seth Norman explains:
“The demographics have just flipped on me…five years ago we were never full on the female side. Now the waiting list for women is at least six months. If I opened a 100-bed facility for women tomorrow morning, it would be filled by tomorrow night.”
The article goes on to assert that “[Judge] Norman and other drug court judges across the state have been trying for two years to get funding from the legislature to open other facilities.” The lack of open spots in treatment centers has created a lethal bottleneck for women in Tennessee jails.
A sense of urgency to address the discrepancy is vital as the number of women are dying from opioid overdose has dramatically increased along with the female inmate population. In fact, women who have died from prescription opioid overdose increased 471 percent from 1999 to 2015, while the rate of deaths caused by heroin overdose was double that of men during this time period. According to the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare, the rate of opioid misuse and dependence is escalating in many communities, including amongst pregnant and parenting women. To top it off, since 2008, Tennessee’s female felony inmate population has increased 58 percent, with 61 percent of the current population of female inmates under the age of 40. These statistics cause me to wonder how many of these women share a similar story to those profiled by the Tennessean who had to leave children in the care of grandparents.
Of course, it is important for all those suffering from substance abuse disorder to be afforded access to treatment while engaged in the criminal justice system. However, the opioid crisis has posed unique challenges in terms of its escalated impact on women and children. Thus, Tennessee lawmakers must make addressing these existing gaps in treatment a priority for 2018.