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Some Kentucky counties are trying to do what courts can’t — help with addiction and mental illness

A hand gripping the bars on a prison cell
Getty Images/iStockphoto
The program aims to help people accused of nonviolent offenses who suffer from addiction or mental health issues avoid incarceration.

In the fallout of Kentucky’s addiction crisis, 11 counties are implementing a pilot program that aims to give people facing charges who have addiction issues a chance at a reset.

Pulaski County Attorney Martin Hatfield frequently sees people in the district court system for a nonviolent offense like shoplifting, a result he considers frustrating and preventable.

In his 13 years as county attorney, he’s witnessed those people grappling with substance use problems and mental health issues.

“Addiction is the culprit of a lot of criminal acts that we see committed. I don't think we're going to be able to arrest our way out of this problem unless we treat the source,” he said.

Individuals with a history of substance use may spend months to years in jail, move through the system and find themselves back again, and any shot at a reset they get is “too little, too late,” Hatfield said.

So when he heard about a pilot program called the Behavioral Health Conditional Dismissal Program, he threw his support behind it.

Senate Bill 90, which was introduced by Republican Senator Whitney Westerfield from Crofton, passed the legislature this year. It creates a pilot program to divert some qualifying low-level offenders away from jail and into treatment for substance use disorder or mental health issues.

“Being out of custody and getting the help that they need strikes me as a very “no duh” sort of solution to the problem,” Westerfield said last week.

Eleven counties were recently selected for the four-year pilot program, which received $10.5 million from Kentucky’s Opioid Abatement Advisory Commission. They are Pulaski, Boone, Boyd, Daviess, Hopkins, Johnson, Knox, Letcher, McCracken, Marion, Oldham counties.

Westerfield said the program is also a way to reduce stigma around addiction and mental health issues.

“There are people that are our neighbors, our coworkers, our fellow church members, our own kin afflicted by addiction. They're Kentuckians and some of them need help, and it would be better if they got that help early on,” he said.

How it works

The program would allow individuals charged with a misdemeanor or Class D felony to be diverted into a treatment program upon arrest. They would receive a behavioral health assessment by a mental health provider before they go to trial.

If they’re found to have a substance use disorder or mental health problem, their case would be set aside — on the condition that they voluntarily agree to a rehabilitation or mental health treatment plan, or both, for up to a year.

If the person follows through on the treatment agreement, which includes access to outpatient treatment and cognitive and behavioral therapies, their case would be dismissed. They would then be directed to housing assistance, vocational training and employment opportunities.

That, Westerfield said, is the best way to reduce recidivism rates.

“If you need a GED, or maybe you've got a semester and a half of college credits in a certain area, or maybe you just want to change career fields and would like some training, we need to offer that because it can go a long way,” he said.

Those with a previous conviction for a Class A, B, or C felony, or a Class D felony, or a misdemeanor that is not a qualifying offense, would not be eligible. Being accused of certain violent offenses, sex crimes, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or domestic or dating violence is also disqualifying.

Westerfield acknowledged the issue of a lack of mental health providers in some counties.

“That's something that we're going to have to consider and look at as we break down how successful the pilot was,” he said.

Hatfield, the Pulaski County Attorney, said about 15 offenders in Pulaski county have signed on to the voluntary treatment plan since January.

“We hear time and again that if we can solve the addiction problem, a lot of us might be out of a job,” Hatfield said of himself and fellow prosecutors, “And that would be fine with me.”

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Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.