Since the Legislature revised the state’s criminal code to provide drug treatment and recovery services to low-level drug offenders, Indiana has been brutalized by an opioid epidemic that has led to a resurgence of HIV along with needle exchange programs in eight counties and counting.
Indiana Attorney General-elect Curtis Hill agrees that jails and prisons are good places for offering addiction programs but maintains that offenders still need to be held accountable for their crimes.
“I want to make sure that while we’re addressing the addictive nature of someone’s being that we don’t lose sight of the fact that have an accountability standard that addresses the person who has committed multiple acts of criminal behavior,” Hill said.
The incoming attorney general discussed his views during and after a panel discussion Wednesday at the Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP Legislative Conference in Indianapolis. He was joined by Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, University of Illinois at Chicago economist Frank Chaloupka, along with physicians Timothy Kelly, medical director of addiction treatment services at Community Hospital Behavioral Care Services and Jennifer Walthall, deputy state health commission and director for health outcomes with the Indiana State Department of Health.
The session on health infrastructure, the opioid crisis, and the tobacco tax took a broad look at what the state can do to curb drug dependency.
Merritt described addiction as an illness that “we can’t arrest our way out of.” He said he wants Indiana to kick its heroin habit in five years and he is planning to introduce a bill in the upcoming legislative session that offers a comprehensive approach to the drug problem.
The panel discussion took place a day after Washington passed the bipartisan 21st Century Cures Act, which includes $1 billion over the next two years to fight the opioid and heroin epidemics. Merritt said he is unsure how much of that money will come to Indiana so he is basing his approach on not getting any federal assistance.
A representative from Sen. Joe Donnelly’s office told the panel that while the amount is unclear, Indiana should expect to receive funds from the new federal initiative. The money will be funneled through the Division of Mental Health and Addiction of the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration.
Hill said he wants to change the perception that the county jails and state prisons are filled with violent and nonviolent offenders. Instead the incarceration system is comprised of violent criminals and chronic offenders. He defined the latter group as individuals who break the law multiple times and even though the infractions might be minor, the only accountability mechanism available is incarceration.
“Our jails are filled with users,” Hill said. “That’s not why we’re putting them there. We’re putting them there to hold them accountable for bad behavior and if we don’t address that accountability, they’re going to continue to re-offend and re-offend and re-offend regardless of whether they’re substance abusers or not.”
In 2013, the Indiana General Assembly overhauled the state’s criminal code to revamp penalties and mandate low-risk offenders serve their sentences in county jails rather than being sent to the Indiana Department of Correction. The Legislature then appropriated $55 million to help communities across the state bolster services and programs aimed at helping low-risk offenders quit the cycle of recidivism.
Hill said he wants to provide assistance to make sure everyone is talking the same language and all understand the problem of substance abuse.
“We all want to have less people locked up, less people addicted and more people being productive,” he said. “So if we start from that standpoint, we should be able to work together to find solutions.”