By Taylor Knopf
More opioid laws could come down the pipeline in the upcoming legislative session which starts in January.
In the midst of the opioid crisis, state lawmakers have been taking a closer look at how the judicial system handles drug offenses.
And on Monday, a legislative task force on opioid sentencing reform released four recommendations which could mean less prison time for drug users and more funding for addiction treatment.
Elected officials and law enforcement are shifting the way they think about drug use. Many view it as a disease in need of treatment, instead of a social problem requiring more time behind bars.
After four meetings filled with presentations from law enforcement agencies and addiction recovery advocates, the task force discussed and approved their recommendation report with some tweaks on Monday.
Mandatory minimums in question
The first recommendation calls for North Carolina judges to receive more discretion when sentencing for drug offenses. Right now, they have no discretion due to a mandatory minimum sentencing structure.
For example, under current North Carolina law, someone caught with up to 3.9 grams of heroin will face a low felony charge, some fines and spend six to 12 months behind bars. But under the minimum sentencing requirements, someone caught with 4 grams of heroin faces a higher felony classification, a $50,000 fine and a mandatory minimum of 70 months in prison.
One of the task force committee members has a family member in the latter situation. Beacham Wray, a public member of the body, has a son in his 40s who is serving 70 months because he was found in possession of just over 4 grams.
“We applaud the Task Force for recognizing that courts need flexibility to distinguish between people with substance abuse problems and career drug traffickers,” said Families Against Mandatory Minimums Vice President of Policy Molly Gill in a press release Monday. The D.C.-based group lobbied in North Carolina against mandatory minimums.
“Without that flexibility, the state is going to continue to waste expensive prison cells on people who aren’t a real danger and need treatment,” the release continued.
Wray spoke in favor of a second recommendation which is to conduct a study to see if retroactive sentencing adjustments should occur for trafficking offenders. Although Wray recognized this would add a significant amount to the workload of those in the criminal justice system, he suggested some sort of limitation to length of time inmates had to appeal and limits on how frequently a person could bring an appeal for relief before the court.
The third recommendation is to fund drug courts. There are currently 29 drug courts in N.C., and they are not state-funded, according to legislative staff. Instead, individual district courts often find the funding in their own budgets to pay social workers and other staff to do the work, resulting in a patchwork of courts doing the work.
Steve Mange, adviser to Attorney General Josh Stein, said he would like include funding for other interventions at critical points of the criminal justice process as well, such as diverting people into treatment before they’re arrested. The task force agreed and added it to the report recommendations.
Calls for more treatment
Finally, the task force recommends funding to expand addiction treatment programs, such as TROSA, a Durham-based residential program where enrollees stay for two years.
Task force co-chair Rep. Greg Murphy (R-Greenville) said he “cannot say enough good things” about TROSA. The program was one of the few recovery programs in the state to receive funding ($6 million) in the latest state budget to help open another facility in the Triad.
While members of the task force were in favor of more treatment dollars, a few suggested that any potential legislation include funds for a variety of treatment programs.
“We need other services in place for these programs to work. A two-year program in and of itself isn’t reasonable for everyone,” said task force member Julie Huneycutt, director of Hope Rx, a community coalition in Henderson County that does substance abuse prevention work.[sponsor]
Huneycutt is also a mother who lost her 20-year-old daughter to an opioid overdose in 2010. She urged the group to consider outpatient programs as well.
“It’s not a one-size fits all, and it’s important that we recognize that,” she said.
After the meeting, Huneycutt said she thinks the task force’s recommendations are good, “but there’s no reality in it if you don’t have mental health understanding,” noting that substance abuse problems and mental health problems often co-exist.
“If you’re not providing services, you’re not getting to the root of the problem,” she said.
Wake County District Court Judge Jefferson Griffin echoed this sentiment, saying he “loves TROSA,” but that two years is a lot of time for a person to spend in treatment.
“We also need more resources in the eastern and western parts of the state,” he said, suggesting they look for more local partners in those regions.