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Treating a Growing Epidemic with Mass Incarceration

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On September 10, 2018, Westword published a feature under the eye-catching headline: This Triple Homicide Hit Close to Home for Connie Jones. After reading what was panning out to be an emotional thrill-ride filled with loss, pain, and unsolved mysteries, the article also introduced the average reader to a story line that many in the criminal justice system find uncomfortably common place. Nicole Boston was one of the victims of an unsolved triple homicide in Denver. Boston graduated as valedictorian of her high school class. Her mother described her as “headstrong and sassy.” But like many who are overcome by opioid addiction, Nicole’s dependency and downfall began with a valid prescription from her doctor.

How the Colorado Criminal Justice System is Failing Addicts

Nicole was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she was 25. This diagnosis led to a partial hysterectomy. After her surgery, unexplained seizures began. One such seizure caused Nicole to hit her head so hard she suffered a head injury and lost her driver’s license. All the while, Nicole’s doctors were prescribing her Percocet and Oxycontin. Dozens of Coloradans will look at Nicole’s story and think of their own. They’ll remember how they were legally prescribed opioids for an illness or injury that left them in pain. Whether it’s a stay at home mom who suffers from constant pain at the mercy of fibromyalgia or the construction worker who suffered a back injury while working on a new apartment building in Denver, their pain began to exceed the limits of their prescription. Their insurance stopped funding their prescription. They lost their job and health benefits. Their doctor stopped their prescription to prevent dependency. Every road paved in pain and unfilled prescriptions led them to another form of relief. Heroin.

The Report

In 2016, the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment issued a ten-page report analyzing opioid trends in Colorado (which have consistently soared above national statics). This report discussed the demographics of the study, the rate of overdose, and some of the programs in place to address this epidemic. What this study doesn’t address is the number of people enveloped in the criminal justice system as a result opioid addiction. What this study doesn’t highlight are all the “programs and services” implemented by jails, prisons, probation departments, and Colorado court systems to “treat” those suffering from opioid and heroin addiction. While many of these court ordered programs have proved successful for some of the individuals who are charged with drug offenses or drug related offenses, the court system can become a revolving door for defendants who are able to remain sober just long enough to successfully complete probation, complete a deferred sentence, or even graduate a twenty-four-month drug program. Nicole’s mother, the subject of the Westword September article, shared a sentiment that many parents, friends, and loved ones have – jail can fix someone’s drug problem. The Westword quoted Nicole’s mom stating, “My hope was that we would be able to get Nicole in jail and get her sober.” This idea that sitting in jail would somehow dry someone out is not only shared among system outsiders, it’s alluded to by judges, prosecutors, and probation officers. There’s a sickening notion that somehow incarceration and the programs offered to accompany confinement can address addiction. This idea ignores the number of people who overdose while in drug court programs.  It ignores the increasing number of people who overdose upon release from incarceration. It even ignores expert opinions that suggest that the heroin epidemic could be the cause of the rise in deaths of defendants while incarcerated.

Unfortunately, criminal charges and incarceration often come as an all-inclusive bundle package with addiction and opioid abuse. Thinking that incarceration followed by a criminal record will somehow fix an epidemic that chemically alters the minds of those affected is as troubling as the story of Nicole Boston and how an illness outside of her control led to her demise. Knowing how to navigate the criminal justice system as well as the many resources for treatment outside the bounds of a court order is a step in the right direction to addressing addiction.

If you have a legal issue you need help with, the attorneys at Whitcomb, Selinsky Law PC would love to share their expertise with you. Please call (303) 543-1958.

About the AuthorLaQunya Baker


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