This story, originally published by The Wilson Post, appeared Jan. 31, 2018. Copyright 2018 The Wilson Post.
As the judge of Greene County General Sessions and Juvenile courts, Kenneth Bailey Jr. sees the impact of the opioid epidemic every day.
So do prosecutors like Dan Armstrong, 3rd Judicial District attorney general for Greene and three other local counties.
Bailey approves of the comprehensive plan announced last week by Gov. Bill Haslam to combat the opioid epidemic in Tennessee. Armstrong also is generally positive, although he has reservations about accountability and resources outlined by the plan.
East Tennessee in particular continues to be profoundly affected by the opioid epidemic, according to judges, prosecutors, police and legislators in this region.
Bailey emphasized that the opioid epidemic affects everyone in Greene County and East Tennessee.
“Sadly, I think everyone knows a family member, friend, child of a friend or neighbor who has had an opioid or drug addiction. A person in active addiction is constantly ‘taking’ — either in the form of stealing, taking up jail space, taking from the health care system due to complications from drug use, just to name a few items,” Bailey wrote.
TN TOGETHER PLAN
Haslam said in a news release that the plan, called TN Together, focuses on three major components: prevention, treatment and law enforcement.
It is “a multi-faceted initiative that addresses the issue of opioid addiction through legislation, proposed funding in the governor’s 2018-19 budget and executive actions,” the Haslam news release said.
The TN Together plan includes a number of initiatives. Among them is legislation to address prevention by limiting the supply and the dosage of opioid prescriptions. Initial prescriptions will be limited to a five-day supply of drugs.
It also proposes limiting coverage for TennCare enrollees to an initial five-day supply with daily dosage limits, increasing prevention education in grades K-12 through revisions to the state’s health education academic standards and includes an executive order establishing a special commission “to formulate current, evidenced-based pain and addiction medicine competencies for adoption by the state’s medical and health care practitioner schools.”
The plan calls for investing more than $25 million for treatment and recovery services for individuals with opioid use disorder.
It also recommends “identifying women of childbearing age who are chronic opioid users and providing targeted outreach about risks and treatment in order to aid in the prevention of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome births.”
It additionally calls for legislation that expands residential treatment and services for opioid dependence within the criminal justice system and creates incentives for offenders who complete intensive treatment programs while in prison or jail, “a best practice that is proven to reduce recidivism, improve lives and communities and save taxpayer dollars.”
Bailey and Armstrong reviewed the TN Together plan and offered their perspectives.
“I am optimistic about the initiatives Gov. Haslam has set forth to help combat the opioid issues. Although methamphetamine use is the biggest issue I see in court now, opioid abuse is still very prevalent,” Bailey wrote.
The judge wrote that investing more resources into treatment options and education for K-12 students “will hopefully make a significant impact on the groups to which those initiatives are aimed.”
Bailey oversees Greene County’s Recovery Court, a rigorous program some offenders qualify for in lieu of jail that has been instrumental in getting many participants off drugs and helping them live addiction-free, productive lives.
“A person in recovery is no longer ‘taking’ from others and is often providing for their family, working a job, paying taxes, not taking up jail space and hopefully in better health. I am always so proud of those people who have made the transition from addiction to recovery,” Bailey wrote.
More funding for treatment beds “will definitely help get people into treatment more quickly,” Bailey wrote.
“We do have issues at times of getting people into treatment, as the waiting list can sometimes be five to eight weeks and research shows that the best time for someone to enter treatment is when they are ready to go,” he wrote. “For some, that five-to-eight week delay is the difference between getting on the path of sober, productive life or staying on the path of destruction headed towards death.”
Finally, Bailey wrote, dosage amounts and addiction education in medical school “should also be of great benefit in battling this crisis.”
Armstorng and assistant district attorneys general prosecute hundreds of drug-related cases every year in the 3rd Judicial District, which includes Greene, Hawkins, Hamblen and Hancock counties. The Greene County Criminal Court dockets last Thursday and Friday heard by Judge John F. Dugger Jr. included at least 20 drug cases.
“I’m generally pleased with the initiative. I have some concerns about those who would participate (in) going for treatment then getting their sentence or probation reduced,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong said that some modifications are needed in several areas to better address the opioid problem.
The TN Together plan calls for legislation that expands residential treatment and services for opioid dependence within the criminal justice system. It creates incentives for offenders who complete intensive treatment programs while in prison or jail, “a best practice that is proven to reduce recidivism, improve lives and communities and save taxpayer dollars,” the news release states.
Judges and prosecutors are accountable to the community. The Tennessee Department of Correction “is accountable to no one, but we are accountable for the community,” Armstrong said.
“I think the judge and my office should have more to say and more input (into) who gets into these programs and what benefits they get from them,” Armstrong said.
There will be individuals “who go for treatment then get their sentence or probation reduced,” Armstrong said.
“My concern is that we’re getting further away from truth in sentencing,” Armstrong said. “I do understand that treatment is good. It needs to be done, but I don’t see there is any accountability to the (sentencing) judge. I would like to see the judge and my office given consideration.”
In terms of resources, Armstrong said funds should be allocated for prosecution and investigation. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation requested 30 new agents to fight the opioid epidemic but is only earmarked to get 10 in the current proposal.
“There is $30 million set aside (for the plan). It does not put aside any money for the prosecution side,” Armstrong said. “My feeling is the resources allocated for the criminal justice system could be better.”
As the state General Assembly formalizes elements of TN Together, Armstrong hopes legislators heed comments from prosecutors and judges.
“We hope they will reach out to us. We certainly will reach out to them,” he said.
For more information on the TN Together plan, including help for those suffering from addiction and other resources, go to www.tn.gov/opioids.
This article originally ran on greenevillesun.com.