Opinion by Julie Gunnigle. Published on October 20, 2019 in The Arizona Republic.
The County Attorney’s Office has long resisted reforms, from safety programs to diversion, and it has only made the opioid problem worse.
The urgency of the opioid crisis continues to increase – and Arizona has not been exempt from this national crisis. Across the country, the mass incarceration of drug users has left children to grow up with holes in their lives where parents, siblings and family members should be.
Nearly 1 in 7 Arizonans report that someone they know personally has died from an opioid overdose. This is despite the fact that earlier this year, Arizona received millions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help combat the growth of the opioid epidemic.
The situation doesn’t appear any better in Maricopa County, with nearly 2,000 opioid related deaths from 2016 to 2018. There were more than 500 deaths due to drug overdoses through May 31, the majority of which involved opioids.
People get prison instead of help
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Arizona providers write 61.2 opioid prescriptions per 100 people, compared to the nationwide average of 58.7 per 100 people.
This epidemic directly affects thousands of Arizonans and millions more nationwide. Maricopa County makes up more than 60% of Arizona’s population and puts more nonviolent drug offenders behind bars than any other county, with the longest average sentences.
Since 2000, the imprisonment rate for non-violent drug possession in Arizona has skyrocketed by more than 140%. Almost half of this increase comes from Maricopa County alone.
These are more than just numbers. These are people who are struggling. They are being funneled into prisons instead of into the health services they need.
So what does this mean for Maricopa County’s opioid crisis? And what more can we do about it?
County attorney balked at reforms
Under the Republican-controlled County Attorney’s Office, there has been an obvious reluctance to address any aspect of this crisis. Regardless of whether the reforms come in the shape of safety programs, sentence reductions or diversion programs.
In the past, we have seen the county attorney oppose even the most rudimentary safety programs, like needle exchanges. These programs provide such resources as clean hypodermic syringes, overdose-reversal drugs, needle disposal and treatment referrals, and help build a rapport with those who are struggling to overcome opioid dependencies.
This opposition to drug reform hasn’t been exclusive to opioids: we have seen the same type of sentiment from the County Attorney’s Office in regards to medical marijuana dispensaries. Former Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery even pressured Gov. Doug Ducey to veto a bipartisan bill that updated Arizona’s repeat offender guidelines.
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When the office has decided to take up modest reforms, like drug diversion programs, they have not been implemented at the scale needed to make a marked difference.
The Drug Diversion Program, under Maricopa County’s Diversion Program Bureau has only referred 3,735 offenders, most of whom were referred due to marijuana charges. Since the program’s inception, less than 500 people have been referred for opioid related offenses.
This is massively insufficient considering that in 2017 alone, more than 900 Maricopa County inmates acknowledged struggling with ongoing opioid use before their arrest.
It is evident that this program has predominantly been offered to those with low-level marijuana offenses, not those struggling with opioid dependence.
This reluctance made the crisis worse
Opposition to drug and sentencing reforms has been a trademark of the County Attorney’s Office for nearly a decade now. This stubbornness has exacerbated the opioid crisis not only in Arizona, but particularly in Maricopa County.
When not even harm reduction programs get support from Maricopa County’s top prosecutor, how can we expect to meaningfully combat this epidemic?
It is time that we try a new approach and look at the issue through a new lens. Arizona, and Maricopa County, can not continue to fall short when it comes to this crisis. Instead of addressing the trauma that spawns opioid dependency, we have further traumatized those who need compassion and outreach.
We need a county attorney who will advocate for sentencing reforms so that those who are struggling with chemical dependencies avoid decades long prison sentences. We have seen this prison pipeline in action for more than a decade – and for more than a decade we have seen its colossal failures.
Diversion works. We need more of it
We know that diversion programs work effectively. Seattle’s LEAD program (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) encourages law enforcement to divert opioid users to social services programs. Those enrolled in the program are more than 50% less likely to be rearrested.
Pre-arrest diversion programs like LEAD have expanded across the country. Atlanta’s Pre-Arrest Diversion Initiative has successfully steered hundreds of Georgians away from prison. In programs like these, it is crucial that local and state attorneys be willing to work with social services and law enforcement in ensuring that people get the help they need.
So far Maricopa County has been unable to effectively invest in diversion programs at large scale. We need our largest county to be represented by a county attorney who is willing to take these issues head on and break the prison cycle for those working through substance misuse disorders.
Diversion programs, along with new investments in public health services and mental health services in schools, are important steps to finally do something about opioids.
The County Attorney’s Office can directly improve conditions and save lives. Beyond the statistics, real people are living with the repercussions of the war on drugs and the inaction we have seen from both the governor and the county attorney. These reforms are bold and courageous, and we should not be afraid of their positive impact in addressing the opioid crisis.
Julie Gunnigle is a former law professor, prosecutor and supporter of ending criminal prosecution of Americans suffering from substance use disorders. She is running for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. Twitter: @JulieGunnigle