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“Doing Time” In Treatment, Not Prison

November 6, 2019

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As the opioid crisis worsened, many judges in Kentucky began noticing a disturbing pattern. A growing number of criminal defendants were overdosing and dying before their cases could be concluded. The judges figured keeping them behind bars and alive was better than the alternative. So, they increased cash bonds. That sent the jail population soaring. Clearly, another approach was needed.

“It was a waste of money and time,” says Commonwealth Attorney Rob Sanders. “Instead of warehousing people in jail, we needed to get them out of cells and into treatment on the front end, not on the back end.”

Defense attorney Burr Travis made a unique suggestion to Sanders. Why not get defendants evaluated and into drug treatment as soon as their case begins instead of when its over?! That way they spend the months it takes a case to get through the legal system in treatment instead of in jail. With that, the HEART (Heroin Expedited Addiction Recovery Treatment) program had its first pulse.

HEART quickly gets defendants facing low-level, non-violent offenses (mostly Possession of a Controlled Substance cases) into intensive drug treatment. The program is open to people with drug possession charges and is strictly voluntary. Counselors conduct evaluations at the jail between the arrest and preliminary hearing. They look at history, background, resources, family, insurance, and housing status to determine the best fit for treatment. A recommendation is made to the judge.

Defendants are released without having to post a cash bond.

“We’re not just turning them loose,” Sanders points out. “On Thursdays, they put everyone on a bus to provide door to door service to treatment.”

Over time, the program has expanded to let other people in on a discretionary basis if it’s clear their crime was due to an addiction. 

The outcome of every case is individually tailored to each defendant but those who are compliant with treatment receive improved plea offers which usually include shorter sentences and shorter periods of supervision. Sometimes charges are reduced or dismissed altogether.

“When we first started, 90 percent would agree to the program,” Sanders says. “Today, it’s practically 100% because the defendants and their attorneys know the benefits. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people have participated in it.”

What’s next for HEART? The program also wants to remove barriers to employment, job training, housing, and childcare. It recently partnered with Life Learning Center to help with that ongoing goal of putting the heart in rehabilitation and recovery.

HEART was a featured award winner in the 2019 Innovation Now project of the Addiction Policy Forum.

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Mark Powell

J. Mark Powell is an author, former network journalist, and veteran communications expert. Read more about Mark Powell.