Is addiction a public health issue or a criminal issue? And where has our justice system gone wrong when dealing with vulnerable and criminalized populations.
There is a good reason for those involved in a criminalized activity like drug use and sex work to be skeptical of law enforcement officers. Historical context tells us that the police have not always been kind to these vulnerable populations. There is a—not unfounded—fear that anyone caught involved in drug activity will end up in handcuffs.
Crumbling trust between police services and vulnerable communities, such as racial minorities, homeless individuals, drug users, and sex workers, doesn’t seem to help matters. For some, the mere sight of a police officer evokes fear, anger, anxiety, and suspicion. Disconnection and contention are rife, and there is a prevalent belief among criminalized populations that police presence may do more harm than good.
But things may be changing as co-responders become more common.
The Responsibilities of Co-Responders
Co-responders are a type of social worker who works in tandem with law enforcement and first responder agencies. Their goal is to help vulnerable individuals rather than sending them to jail and throwing away the key.
The role of co-responders are to help officers engage criminalized populations using a modified approach. The idea is to change the lens through which society—and law enforcement officers—view people struggling with drug use and addiction. Instead of seeing them as criminals, we have to see drug users and addicts as human beings in need of care.
The evolving debate centers around punishment and treatment: how can society suitably address recurring mental health and addiction issues? As it stands, many people struggling with mental health, addiction, poverty, and homelessness may be doomed to be ‘repeat offenders.’ They are within a system that is ill-equipped to address the complex social issues that go in circles with the law.
The Fallout of War
The Reagan-era war on drugs left a lasting legacy, one which still affects drug users to this day. Addiction rates among incarcerated individuals are incredibly high: a study from Columbia University suggests that as many as 65 percent of American prisoners (that’s 1.5 million people) suffer from addiction. In comparison, only 11 percent of that number receive substance abuse treatment during their time behind bars. These ineffective strategies for dealing with addiction are not only a drain on government funds, but they also offer no benefit to public safety. The human cost is intolerably high.
Co-Responders in Massachusetts
According to Mother Jones, the rates of opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts tripled in less than a decade, starting in 2010. Overdose victims were dying because their friends wouldn’t call for emergency assistance as they feared getting arrested themselves. Co-responders could help mitigate these fears, so people know they won’t be arrested, and instead will received help.
The system appears to be broken. Seen as more likely to hand out punishment than lend a helping hand. Maybe ride-alongs with clinical professionals like Danielle Larsen can change the story. The focus should be on outreach, instead of punishing addicted individuals. Healthcare and radical empathy must move to the forefront of addiction treatment strategies. Otherwise, our legal system may be doomed to repeat its past mistakes.
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