BLOG: Where the Opioid Crisis and Criminal Justice Reform Meet

By: J.J. Abbott, Deputy Press Secretary

May 31, 2016

Each year, nearly 18,000 inmates will leave the state prison system. And, approximately 90 percent of those inmates have a history of substance abuse and/or mental health issues.

For too long, the criminal justice system wasn’t doing nearly enough to help these people transition back to society with access to the help and medical care that they need. And, statistically, many of them will turn to substance abuse and too many will re-enter the criminal justice system.

This doesn’t only produce worse outcomes – it also is costing taxpayers a fortune. According to new data analysis by the Council of State Government as part of Pennsylvania’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative, incarcerating property and drug offenses costs Pennsylvania taxpayers more than $500 million per year.

Consider this: the cost of sending someone through the state’s Drug and Alcohol Restrictive Intermediate Punishment costs just over $5,000 for the length of their time in the program. On the other hand, the average cost per sentence of state prison costs more than $92,000.

Under the leadership of Governor Wolf and Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel, Pennsylvania is taking a different approach – one that will save money by further improving outcomes and lowering prison populations and improve public safety by producing better individuals leaving the system.

Governor Wolf has led an effort within the Department of Corrections to drastically expand their work in combating opioid addiction among inmates, including new treatment to help inmates reduce their reliance on substance and ensure they have coverage for health services after their release.

A big part of addressing this problem in the right way – with access to treatment and counseling – was Governor Wolf’s decision to expand Medicaid in Pennsylvania. DOC is working diligently to ensure that as people transition out of prison, they are enrolled in Medicaid before they ever leave. This allows seamless access to drug treatment and mental health services. Learn more about access to this treatment through Medicaid expansion here.

Further, DOC is currently working to expand access to a pilot program that provides inmates with a history of substance abuse with Vivitrol – an injected prescription that reduces cravings for opioids, including heroin and painkillers.

Through assessment of inmates upon reception into the state prison system, we know that 65 percent of those offenders suffer from some sort of addiction.

While the DOC has always provided drug and alcohol treatment, it has been done the same way for a long time. As Secretary Wetzel says, the disease of addiction is not the crime. For DOC to achieve the goal of having people leave the system better people and less likely to commit new crimes, we have to continue to do a better job of addressing the disease of addiction.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections is leading the way nationally in addressing addiction in the same way it has for other diseases like diabetes, and in turn, Pennsylvanians can hopefully look forward to continued improved outcomes, and reduced crime and costs.

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