Treating addiction in the criminal justice system benefits everyone | The Kennedy Forum

Treating addiction in the criminal justice system benefits everyone
March 10, 2021

Christine Finnigan recently sued DuPage County (Chicago) Sheriff James Mendrick for failing to facilitate her methadone treatment while she served 30 days for an alcohol-related DUI. Methadone is an opioid-based medication that blocks cravings for drugs like heroin and OxyContin and lessens the chance of an overdose. The Kennedy Forum Illinois wrote a letter in support of Ms. Finnigan.

The lawsuit was ultimately thrown out and jail officials agreed to let Finnigan access her methadone treatments. But the case was significant in that it shined a major spotlight on a common problem occurring in jails and prisons across the country: the denial of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) such as methadone and buprenorphine for those with substance use disorders.

Addiction has hit crisis levels in the U.S. In December, the CDC reported that more than 81,000 drug overdose deaths had occurred between May 2019 and 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a year-long period. In DuPage County alone, approximately 80% of inmates enter the jail with an addiction, often accompanied by mental health concerns. This trend is not unique to DuPage County or Illinois.

Jails and prisons are constitutionally and morally obligated to provide inmates with adequate medical care—including care for mental health and substance use disorders—just as they would for diabetes, cancer, or heart disease. In fact, in late 2018, a federal judge affirmed the right to MAT for an individual with opioid use disorder under the American with Disabilities Act and the Eighth Amendment.

Forcing people to stop MAT due to incarceration is dangerous and inhumane. It also increases the likelihood that they will die from an overdose upon release. There’s a big difference between not being able to take drugs and being in recovery from addiction. People with untreated addiction often relapse immediately after getting out, and many overdose because their tolerance for the drug dramatically decreased during lockup.

Fortunately, since the Finnigan lawsuit was dismissed, Sheriff Mendrick in Illinois has reported the DuPage county jail is working with the health department to create a buprenorphine program for inmates. The program will focus on a long-acting form of the medication—the typical version must be taken daily under the tongue—that would minimize concerns about hoarding and diversion. Until the program is fully implemented, however, cases will be managed on an individual basis. 

Other counties and states are also doing the right thing—and can serve as national models. For example, the Rhode Island Department of Corrections successfully implemented a MAT program that has drastically reduced overdose deaths among recently released inmates.

MAT is a win-win for everyone. Not only does it provide inmates with a shot at long-term recovery and a chance to rebuild their lives, but it also helps to create a healthier, less violent environment within the jail or prison itself. People with untreated addictions often struggle to get drugs inside, resulting in fights, extortion, and more.

It is only when we approach issues from a larger systemic perspective that we will ever truly begin to see real change. Addiction is not a moral failing. We must fight to address it within the criminal justice system the same way we are fighting to address it on the outside—through science, compassion, and benefit to the greater good.