District Court Judge Stephanie Pearce Burke says her speciality drug court in Jefferson County designed to steer criminal defendants toward addiction treatment instead of jail is producing good results, but it’s only at half-capacity and in need of discretionary funds to help participants in crisis pay for housing, medication and food to increase their odds of completing the program.
Earlier this week, Burke participated in the inaugural criminal justice roundtable of city leaders created by Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together (CLOUT), a faith-based social justice group. In the meeting — which included representatives of Louisville Metro Police, Metro Council, Mayor Greg Fischer’s office, Metro Corrections and the Jefferson County Attorney — CLOUT advocated for several policy changes to steer those with mental illness and drug addiction away from the criminal justice system and toward treatment and services.
Asked what the roundtable participants can do to help the drug court system, Burke said the court is in need of a discretionary fund to help participants who immediately require financial assistance — such as $75-100 to pay for a first week’s rent, $50 to fill a prescription to treat a co-occurring mental illness, or even food and clothing in an emergency.
“Even $5,000 or $10,000 would be a huge amount of money and go a long way in meeting the needs of our participants,” said Burke, who added that stable housing is often the largest burden and obstacle toward their successful completion of the program.
While her court can’t itself fundraise, she suggested that a steering committee be formed that could take on this task, as has taken place in other cities around the country in implementing similar drug courts.
Though Burke said her drug court is growing with an influx of participants in the past month, it is “currently only at about half capacity,” which aligned with CLOUT’s handout at the meeting stating that the drug court has enough staff to serve 160 participants, but only 80-90 are currently in the program. But while CLOUT called for “more training of judges and prosecutors” on the benefits of the program so they will refer more defendants to it, after the meeting Burke countered that the lack of participation is more due to hesitancy among defense attorneys who she says often believe they can get their client a better deal outside the rigorous treatment model of the drug court.
“I’ve had attorneys tell me ‘well, drug court is for criminals and my client is not a criminal,’” said Burke. “Well, that’s actually backwards. Drug court is for addicts, and it’s addicts who end up in the criminal system due to their addiction. And we treat them like people who have an illness, which they do.”
In the meeting, Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell took issue with the suggestion that his prosecutors need more training on the drug court program so they’ll refer more defendants to it, saying that while they can discuss and encourage such a decision, they cannot force a defendant to do so and “this is not a process where we just refer people into a drug court.”
“It’s not like we have empty seats in the Yum! Center and we just start shoveling people in there,” said O’Connell, whose own son died of a heroin overdose three years ago.
Burke said both defense attorneys and prosecutors alike need to examine and share a defendant’s history, even in cases as simple as theft, as “I see people who have 10 or 15 theft charges and they’re all drug related. That person is an addict and the only reason they’re stealing is to get their next fix. So why don’t we do something smart for the community and stop that perpetrating on the community and get them into treatment.”
Adding that most participants in her drug court program have co-occurring disorders of substance abuse and mental illness, Burke said such people are able to receive both mental health services and addiction treatment.
“They have a counselor, they have a clinical therapist, they have all of this through our program,” said Burke. “All of these people that are coming in front of the criminal courts do not have access to those resources. So I try to explain to (defense attorneys) that they’re not doing their client any favors by talking them out of it, when those people want treatment, they want help… People who have a support network like we have fare so much better in their sobriety and their recovery than people who are out there just kind of fending for themselves trying to do it on their own.”
Burke said the best part about drug court is that “our people are not reoffending,” adding that “on that alone, the community should be demanding that people be in our program, because it reduces recidivism, particularly of theft crimes and breaking into houses and stealing from their families and breaking into cars.”
According to Burke, only 30-35 percent of drug court participants fully complete the program and graduate, but she added this is higher than the national average that is in the 20s. Burke also said she would consider roughly 80 percent of those going through her drug court as being successful in their recovery, adding that many who don’t wind up graduating “may have been disqualified from the program or exited the program for some reason that was not reoffending or not getting in trouble or failure. And those people are still being successful – much more successful in their recovery than they were before the program.”
Louisville — like many cities throughout the country — is in the midst of a growing opioid epidemic, as both fatal and non-fatal overdoses have risen by alarming rates over the past two years, driven mostly by the use of heroin and fentanyl.
Despite a growing national movement of addiction treatment professionals and peer-reviewed research touting medication-assisted treatment (MAT) as a best practice in combating dependence on opioids like heroin and prescription painkillers, the large majority of addiction treatment practiced around the country is abstinence-based. As of last spring, less than 2 percent of the 2,420 participants in Kentucky’s specialty courts were in a program utilizing MAT, including only seven in Jefferson County.
Of MAT, Burke said, “We’re not opposed to it and we use it when necessary.”
“We do use medication-assisted treatment when we believe it’s appropriate, but we weigh each person on a case-by-case basis and what that person’s specific needs are,” said Burke. “A lot of our people determine that they don’t want that crutch, and we have people come into the program who are on medication-assisted treatment who ultimately graduated without it by the time they came off it. So it’s a good thing to see.”
Burke said she is “a big fan of Vivitrol,” the non-narcotic monthly injection that blocks the euphoric effects of opioids. Though Suboxone — the brand name of a sublingual film containing the partial agonist opioid buprenorphine — is increasingly hailed by addiction professionals and research as a vital tool in the fight against illicit opioids, Burke said she had “a few” use that drug in treatment. She is opposed to MAT utilizing methadone, saying “we don’t see methadone as being successful” based on the participants who entered the program while using it.
Asked if appropriations from the city budget or individual council members’ discretionary funds should go toward the creation of an emergency fund for drug court participants, Burke said she is “talking with some council members at this time to do that,” adding that ” a judge should not be lobbying for funds, but we’re in the desperate situation of trying to educate them about the fact that we are without these resources.” She said the creation of a steering committee would be ideal in the short term, as “most big successful programs across the country do have those,” which could help in the writing of grant proposals for additional funds.
CLOUT also advocated at the meeting for additional financial support for Centerstone Kentucky’s new Living Room Project, in which police officers can take low-level offenders with mental health or substance abuse issues to their facility, instead of jail, where they can be connected to resources. This pilot project recently received $325,000 in the 2017-2018 fiscal year budget passed by Metro Council, but Centerstone says they will need additional funds to expand the program to its full potential for multiple years. CLOUT also is backing a similar Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) model for LMPD officers to divert low-level drug offenders to treatment, which already is supported by Chief Steve Conrad, whose department has sought a grant to implement such a model for offenders addicted to opioids.