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Time to start treating drug addiction as a health issue, not a crime

With rising inmate populations and crumbling prison infrastructure depleting the state of much-needed funding, it is time to stop treating drug addiction as a crime and start regarding it as the public health issue that it is.

We agree with the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce that reclassifying drug possession charges to misdemeanors and investing in treatment over incarceration will serve a dual purpose — save the state money on prison costs, which grew 15.9% between 2016 and 2020, and help to break the cycle of drug addiction through education and treatment.

The current cost to incarcerate a state inmate in Kentucky is $18,406 per year. The approximately 4,500 inmates in prison for drug offenses in 2016 cost taxpayers more than $82 million per year.

According to data from the Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council, a working group established by former Gov. Matt Bevin charged with developing “fiscally-sound, data-driven criminal justice policies,” the number of offenders imprisoned for drug trafficking between 2012 and 2016 jumped 25.6% (1,525 in 2012 to 1,916 in 2016). However, there was a 101.5% increase in the number of offenders (911 in 2012 to 1,836 in 2016) jailed on drug possession charges.

In fact, it was a year ago this week that a Franklin County Regional Jail inmate was discovered dead in his cell after what a lawsuit alleges were days without treatment for withdrawal symptoms related to drug use.

Dylan Stratton, 21, was booked into the jail Jan. 17, 2019, on a drug charge and was placed in the detox holding cell for observation. According to the lawsuit, he refused meals and began vomiting. A day later he had a seizure, reportedly from benzodiazepine withdrawal, and died.

This case is just one of many that illustrate how Kentucky’s jails are ill-equipped to handle drug addicts. Instead of spending money to punish drug users, the state should increase funding for substance abuse treatment.

— The State Journal