Knox County DA report highlights connection between jail and fatal overdoses after incarceration

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE)- The Knox County District Attorney General’s Office released it’s official statistics of fatal overdoses in 2018.

For three years, the DA’s office, along with the Drug Related Death Task Force, had been collecting fatal overdose data since 2016, hoping to find a way to fight the opioid epidemic, drug-related deaths and crime.

With a third year of data complete, District Attorney Charme Allen said there is a clear interception point and opportunity for intervention.

Courtesy of the Knox County District Attorney’s Office.

According to the report, 54% of total fatal overdose victims had a run in with the criminal justice system within five years of dying in 2018.

30% died within a year, and 13% died within a year and had a recent jail stay of one week or less.

Allen said that because the people are already in the justice system, the county can use that system to get them help.

She said, “Intervening through or within the justice system is a proven, cost-effective method of reducing recidivism rates and increasing recovery rates for individuals with substance use disorders, and as this report continues to suggest, it can save lives.”

Steve Wildsmith, a recovering addict and content developer of Cornerstone of Recovery, said the report truly reflects the double-edged sword convicts face.

“It’s really difficult for people who come out of jail regardless, to sort of build back that trust with their families and with society. But, when you’re also struggling with a drug problem, it can just seem overwhelming, it can seem hopeless,” Wildsmith said.

He said the report also shows that simply throwing addicts in jail doesn’t solve the problem.

“It’s not about just punishment. It’s got to be about recovery, it’s got to be about what are the solutions that we’re offering. You know? Because if we’re not doing anything about that, then we’re not doing anything to address the root of the problem,” Wildsmith said.

He said there is a common misconception that addicts should not go to jail because they need treatment and not incarceration.

Wildsmith said though, if someone commits a crime, they should face the consequences.

“People who commit crimes can, and should, answer for those crimes. They have a legal responsibility to do so. We can focus on recovery while still making sure they pay their debts. We can give them a solution; a way out of addiction,” Wildsmith said.

Allen also acknowledged punishment wasn’t the only answer.

In the report, she wrote that “the criminal justice system was designed to control and prevent crime; it was not designed to treat addiction, which means we must work together to find ways to be tough on crime and smart on prevention.”

Allen said fighting addiction and the fatal overdose epidemic is a collaborative effort.

She said the reason to collect and report the data is to help find where the problem is, but to also show proof and apply for grants.

Allen said the report could lead to more state and federal funding for “treatment in jail, to do treatment in the community, to come up with programs to try to get folks out of addiction, into recovery, thus lowering the crime rate, less victims in our community and less folks dying.”

Wildsmith said Knox County was lucky in that people in the justice system, such as Allen and the task force, “understand that we can’t punish our way out of this problem.”

He said that the criminal justice system already works closely with addiction rehabilitation programs, such as Cornerstone of Recovery, Steppingstone of Recovery and more.

Both Allen and Wildsmith attended the Metro Drug Coalition’s Community Champion Awards on Tuesday, which was a room full of those working to help end addiction.

Wildsmith received one of the awards, which was the media advocacy award.

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