It is no secret that when it comes to politics, there is very little on which the two of us agree. But we both believe this: The opioid epidemic is now the greatest public health and public safety crisis facing this nation.
It claims the lives of 91 Americans each day, tearing apart families and ravaging communities. As the war on drugs demonstrated, we cannot incarcerate our way out of this problem.
Rather than fill our prisons and jails with people who are addicted to drugs or who suffer from mental illness, Congress should look to proven solutions that promote accountability and treatment. One model that deserves more national attention is treatment courts, such as those for drugs and veterans’ treatment.
Entrusting the criminal justice system with the difficult task of tackling a public health crisis seems counterintuitive. But it is already an unfortunate reality that the justice system serves as the front lines of the fight against addiction and mental illness. According to the National Research Council, more than half of the 2.2 million people behind bars in America suffer from at least one form of mental illness and often have concurrent substance abuse disorders. It is critical that courts be equipped with the tools needed to combat these crises — and most importantly keep people out of prisons and jails when treatment would be a far better option for individuals and society.
And if we agree that high-quality, affordable treatment should be available to every individual who needs it, we also must acknowledge that addiction leads some people to commit non–drug-related crimes that carry the potential of serious prison time. For these people, treatment court offers a life-saving alternative that holds them accountable for these crimes and provides treatment for their addiction disorder.
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