COMMUNITY FORUM REMARKS: Need to address the main driver of criminal and criminalized behavior, substance abuse, and that the failed law enforcement model needs to be supplanted by a public health model driven by evidence and community benefit

The Community Solidarity Response Network of Toledo (CSRN), our local Black Lives Matter group, and the ACLU hosted a forum on “What Does a Safer Toledo Look Like?” This forum was in response to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ National Public Safety Partnership aimed at “fighting violent crime.” This initiative has been vague with little transparency, and has not included robust public input, let alone “partnership.” CSRN and the ACLU have good reason to suspect that this initiative is a further clamping down of traditional law enforcement, a “tough on crime” effort, and a revamping of the war on drugs. Such efforts will predictably make some people less safe, notably communities of color and the poor. Below are the remarks I prepared for this community forum, addressing the need to deal with the main driver of criminal and criminalized behavior, substance abuse, and that the failed law enforcement model needs to be supplanted by a public health model driven by evidence and community benefit:

A safe community is one where we demonstrate a willingness and competency in caring for one another rather than hurting or punishing each other. A safe community is one where all who seek or need help with substance abuse have easy access to help. The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population; we consume two-thirds of the world’s illegal drugs; we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Locking people up with substance abuse problems is a terrible approach to addressing its ravages on society, including criminal behavior, unstable housing, social ostracism, poverty and unemployment. Punishing substance abusers has not and cannot work in creating a safe community for all.

The overwhelming majority of persons under the care of the criminal justice system are persons with substance abuse, mental health problems, or both. About 85% of persons under the care of the criminal justice system are there because of offenses related to substance abuse. The criminal justice system does a very poor job dealing with the underlying issue of substance abuse and addiction. Less than 20% receive treatment. Much more commonly, the criminal justice system exacerbates substance abuse and mental health problems. The criminal justice system supplies further trauma, separates people from their communities and social support systems, saddles people with criminal records and social ostracism, and is a terrible way to provide services that would help people live fuller lives in their community — services that would address stable housing, complicated health issues, and poverty and unemployment. The criminal justice system may serve as a way to screen people for enmeshment in socially destructive behavior. However, the criminal justice system fails as an effective or humane way to deal with the overwhelming majority of people whose underlying issue driving socially destructive behavior is substance abuse. This failure comes at great human and financial cost.

Further, the war on drugs, relying on a law enforcement model, has been a miserable failure in reducing substance abuse or its societal harms. A new model is needed for dealing with substance abuse. The best, evidence-driven model is a public health model of prevention, nonjudgmental harm reduction, and community-based treatment and support services. This public health approach is more humane and more effective, a winning combination for a safer community. We need to profoundly shift our focus, priorities and resources away from the law enforcement approach to a public health model and approach. For instance, providing treatment is cost-effective, saving between $2 and $6 for every $1 spent on it, which in part reflects reductions in criminal behavior and re-incarceration. Fortunately, a public health approach will actually reduce socially destructive behavior and better meet the objectives of the criminal justice system. One key shift needs to be redefining of substance abuse as a public health problem rather than a criminal justice matter. This includes decriminalizing the use and possession of drugs.

The criminal justice system can play an important role in this public health approach, by proper law enforcement dealings, assessment and treatment of persons with substance abuse and mental health problems, particularly partnering with community-based treatment services as alternative sentencing to incarceration. In preparation for release from the criminal justice system, it should prepare people to best face the many challenges to successful reentry into the community, such as lack of health care, stable housing, job skills, education, and connection to other support services to minimize their probability of relapse and re-arrest. We already have the resources to do much better. We can get much more for much less. This is a great opportunity.

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