Editor's Note: The following editorial was first published on October 23, 2018. Last Friday, the Walton editorial board updated it. The following is excerpted from the updated version.
At least several proposals to reform the criminal justice system that passed in the past five months in the state legislature can go a long way toward overcoming the country's opioid crisis.
As crimes such as these as murder and domestic violence become more prevalent, states are recognizing the need to offer alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders.
The National Academy of Sciences reviewed guidelines for how to offer alternatives to incarceration in a paper released in 2016. The report noted research that shows prisons are not effective in reducing recidivism and ultimately costs taxpayers money.
The data and public sentiment have become a compelling argument. Many states have revised their criminal justice practices or taken action to reduce the over-crowding of their prisons.
As many as 1 in 4 states have passed laws to repeal mandatory minimum sentences, according to the organization Georgia Justice Network. The report notes 16 states now allow counties to possess small amounts of marijuana for medical purposes, creating the opportunity for more medical marijuana providers to locate in rural parts of the state, where many drug offenders reside. Another 20 states now ban the automatic life sentence for juveniles caught with guns.
Michigan Democrats recently passed legislation to increase the use of judicial discretion on misdemeanor possession. Assemblyman Aric Nesbitt sponsored the legislation and points to the possibility of using such leniency in the fight against opioid abuse. The legislation now sits on Gov. Rick Snyder's desk.
The opioid crisis in Michigan has gained national attention in recent months. The state's economy has borne the brunt of the spike. As public schools have added time for drug counseling and those working with youth are encouraged to do so, there are fewer prospects for those with substance use disorders.
There's also added pressure to correct the under-custody opioid deaths that have come to the forefront this year. At least four people have died after receiving medications purchased by another person online and then injected or snorted.
Officials need to do a better job of monitoring and properly disposing of unused pharmaceuticals.
Meanwhile, communities continue to struggle with the issue of overpopulation. In 2015, 911 calls for police help in Columbia County were as high as 727 per day. The number of callers has dropped in the past few years. But the county is still on pace to receive about 800 calls per day this year.
Adding to the strain is the random "surprise" use of opioids in places such as hospitals and schools. But those who have purchased the drug outside the jail can run the risk of overdose themselves. That puts all people in the community at risk.
Unintended consequences are a huge part of our current system of justice. Too often, state officials and legislators have looked the other way as nonviolent offenders have given up their civil rights. If they are located in communities where alternative community-based programs are available, why not act?
Some of the latest proposals to reform the criminal justice system also call for reform of education and public safety education.
A drug education in schools should be mandatory, but has not been as of late in Michigan. The Walton editorial board recommends replacing the outdated law that mandates a minimum class attendance of 21 years old in order to graduate. That law leaves some people behind, as they attempt to figure out a way to pass courses that have nothing to do with what they will be required to do in life.
Parents too need to be more vocal with their children about the harm caused by drugs, particularly opioids. Misuse of prescription opioids not only causes long-term physical pain, but has an emotional impact on those addicted to them. To combat that, education programs should go beyond simply educating kids and their parents.
The Walton editorial board has also proposed a broader approach in addressing the overdose crisis. Michigan should make opioid addiction a primary focus of opioid education programs in schools. It would also be good to educate people about illicit drug abuse, better inform people about options for treatment and redirect addicts to the resources available.