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Ameer Mabjish: Criminal justice reforms can lead us out of opioid epidemic; we can’t arrest our way out

The Commonwealth of Kentucky is still in the midst of a dire opioid crisis.  This is not a mere trend, fad, or phase. Our state is currently among the top five states with the highest numbers of overdose deaths. What is a harsh lesson we all should be learning from this epidemic? We cannot arrest our way out of it.
Incarceration does not reduce the number of opioid overdose deaths. Instead, we must focus on evidence-based criminal justice programs that will reduce the prison population while connecting people to much-needed public health programs. By doing so, Kentucky can begin digging its way out of the opioid epidemic grave.
Having spent the past ten years as a criminal defense attorney, the first eight of which were as a Northern Kentucky public defender, I have witnessed first-hand the heart-breaking destruction this epidemic leaves in its wake. Incarceration only exacerbates the problem.
Every week, I have defended clients in court facing jail or prison for addiction-related offenses such as possessing small amounts of heroin or another drug. Some purchased the drug for their own use. Some sold small amounts of heroin to fund their own addiction. None are even close to being kingpins in the mold of “El Chapo”, but all faced harsh sentences. It has been a double tragedy. These individuals needed treatment and medical help; instead they faced lengthy prison sentences, and a criminal record that would destroy their lives.

Ameer Mabjish

My experiences on the front lines of the criminal justice system underlie my desire to raise more awareness about the complex nature of the opioid epidemic. In 2015, I produced a documentary on the impact of heroin in my community in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio. The film was subsequently aired as a “Special Report” by Soledad O’Brien.
Nowadays, we are seeing an increase in criminal justice programs that tackle opioid use while eschewing the incarceration model. One such program that has received a lot of attention over the last few years is LEAD – Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. The program operates with the collaboration of law enforcement, public defenders, social workers, treatment experts, and prosecutors. When a law enforcement officer encounters an individual with drugs, rather than arrest that person, the officer can take that person to the LEAD program. There, an assessment will be done of the individual’s needs. Perhaps they need treatment, perhaps they need housing, perhaps they need overdose prevention education. Whatever the need, the LEAD team is there to offer a solution that avoids jail and enables the person to get their life back on track.
The program began in Seattle in 2011, and now operates in over thirty states. It has a proven record of success. A University of Washington report found that participants were 60 percent less likely to be rearrested, and experienced improvements in their health. Kentucky will get its chance to see LEAD in action after Louisville was given funding to start its own program.
Last June, staff from the Louisville Metro Criminal Justice Commission traveled to Washington D.C. to talk to elected representatives about LEAD and take part in a panel discussion on the program. The discussion focused on the need to expand LEAD throughout the country and create a federal funding stream. A few months later, the United States Senate announced that it had allocated $2.5 million for a grant program for LEAD. Unfortunately, the funding has not been approved yet as the House and Senate Appropriations Committees debate a final federal funding bill. But the hope is that Kentucky legislators who sit on the powerful Appropriations Committee and have championed evidence-based approaches to the opioid epidemic – Senator McConnell and Rep. Hal Rogers – will support this funding stream that could so greatly benefit our state.
The opioid epidemic is a tragedy that continues to demand immediate action, but we must make sure we avoid the mistakes of the past. Reducing overdose deaths and reducing the prison population are not diametrically opposed goals. Rather, policymakers must view these innovative programs as a way to persevere and overcome Kentucky’s opioid epidemic.
Ameer E. Mabjish served as a public defender for 8 years in Kenton and Campbell Counties and now has his own private law practice, Mabjish Law, PLLC, serving both the Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio communities.

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One Comment

  1. Charlena says:

    I agree something needs to happen to keep our children drug free. Drugs are no respecter of persons. Rich, or poor, famous or not, the opioid crisis is taking our children. My hope is that the LEAD program spreads Nationwide. Thanks Ameer for your concern and reminding us that there is a need of a good drug program. I have a nephew sitting in jail in KY drug related.four children in foster care. So sad

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