Drug courts save lives

Published 10:15 am Friday, March 26, 2021

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For the last five years, I have been honored to serve as Louisiana’s chief legal officer. My service has focused on protecting Louisiana’s families, freedoms, and the rule of law. Part of protecting Louisiana is fighting the opioid epidemic, and this is an issue that I have not taken lightly.

From lobbying Congress for more stringent oversight of opioid manufacturers and distributors to creating the “End the Epidemic LA” informational campaign to making Naloxone available to Louisiana’s first responders to placing drug take back boxes throughout the state — I have worked with private and public partners to combat the crisis plaguing our state.

For the last year, I have worked with stakeholders from across Louisiana on the Drug and Specialty Courts Commission. During that time, we noticed numerous sources showing drug courts reduce crime, reduce drug use, and reduce costs to taxpayers. We also unfortunately observed a recent reduction in participation and a lack of funding to grow these lifesaving programs.

The Commission sought a solution to these financing hurdles and asked what should be done with likely settlements between Louisiana and those who have proliferated the opioid crisis.

Rather than the monies going to more-of-the-same, wasteful government spending — we proposed it go to repairing the damage caused by the epidemic and improving the safety of all our state’s citizens. That proposal is becoming legislation authored by Senator Rick Ward, which would dedicate funding to drug and specialty courts in Louisiana.

Decades ago, at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, some justice and treatment professionals came together to offer treatment and compassion. They created the first treatment court and, in doing so, began an option that has saved more than one million lives and hundreds of millions of tax dollars. They helped to reduce both crime and recidivism, thus protecting public safety, promoting public health, and preserving families.

These specialty courts address the root causes of drug use and criminal behavior like poverty, mental health issues, physical health, and unemployment. Participation can last several months or a couple of years, instituting and helping to maintain long-term recovery strategies. Participants are subject to frequent and random drug tests, establishing accountability. Participation also includes treatment for substance use disorders that are grounded in the science of addiction.

Drug courts work, and they should be fully funded across our State. We want them to be an option for all our State’s citizens, whether they live in Jackson Parish or Jefferson Parish. Senator Ward’s bill can make that possible by creating a Drug and Specialty Court fund in the state treasury to accept deposit of any compensation recovered from opioid manufacturers, marketers, and sellers who stoked the fire of the epidemic. The fund would be disbursed to state and local entities that provide and enable treatment courts across Louisiana.

The legislation is designed to expand drug testing for arrestees and require those testing positive to be screened for program suitability. This approach would quickly identify individuals with substance use disorders who become involved in the criminal justice system and hopefully provide early intervention and treatment for them. It also would provide the necessary resources for those state and local entities that work with these individuals.

One overdose death is one too many. Unfortunately, thousands of our neighbors have buried their loved ones throughout the epidemic. This drug court bill gives us an opportunity to invest the settlements, judgments, and penalties recovered by our State as a result of the opioid crisis into saving resources, lives, and families across Louisiana.

I hope you will join me in encouraging your legislators to support this common-sense measure to reduce crime, taxpayer cost, and overdose deaths. Drug courts save lives, and this bill will give more people a second chance at a healthy, productive life.

Jeff Landry is the attorney general for the state of Louisiana.