Tilley: Time for new approach to battling drug addiction

Register File Photo

John Tilley, the secretary of Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, speaks at a DOCJT graduation earlier this year.


ASHLAND -- "If someone has a drug problem they don't need to be in the system, they need to be handled outside by mental health and treatment professionals," John Tilley said.

Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Secretary John Tilley believes it's time to demand a new approach that focuses on treatment and better outcomes for public safety while also saving lives.

At workshop this month in Ashland, Tilley spoke to a group of journalists and individuals working in treatment facilities about drug addiction and the criminal justice system. The workshop, titled Covering Substance Abuse and Recovery, was sponsored by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky and Oak Ridge Associated Universities.

Tilley is a former journalist and lawmaker and continues to be an advocate for Kentucky's substance abuse disorder.

According to Tilley, roughly 3,000 people were in state prisons in Kentucky in 1970. The state's population since then has grown only 39%, but the state's prison population had grown 702%.

Tilley continued to mention staggering numbers throughout his address.

For example, there are 24,150 people in state custody not including those serving pre-trial time in county jails. That number has been growing in the days since, Tilley said.

"There's no logical explanation except for what you're here to talk about today," Tilley noted. "That is a war on drugs and a way to battle the public health epidemic."

Tilley suggests the state tweak its strategy or take a completely different approach. Tilley has been a prosecutor, a defense counselor and in some fashion, has worked in all three branches of government.

"We need to stop using a criminal justice hammer to address a public health nightmare," Tilley said about the matter.

Tilley noted that the drug problem in eastern Kentucky varies from the one in western Kentucky. He's seeing a multiple drug use problem or poly substance abuse problem now in western Kentucky.

And while the state spent $5 million in 1970, today it spends $650 million on state corrections alone.

"We aren't funding things that return on investment," Tilley noted.

Tilley added that the state of Kentucky doesn't have a line item in the budget to pay for drug treatment or programming. However, there is some grant money from the federal government, money that is reinvested from criminal justice savings with reduced incarceration rates.

"But there's no general fund for programming such as job skills or drug treatment," he said. "No upfront investment from the taxpayer. Take it for what it's worth."

Tilley reiterated that the commonwealth does however spend a lot of money warehousing people across the state. And nationally, the number of kids who have had a parent in jail or prison at some point in their childhood hovers around 5.1 million. Kentucky ranks near the top with a 2016 report revealing 135,000 children impacted.

Kentucky is also a true epicenter for incarcerated females

"We've decimated our population by criminalizing disease," Tilley said. "We've decimated our workforce and our families. No wonder we've had record numbers of children in foster care."

Over 1,300 Kentuckians died from drug overdoses in 2018. These numbers represent incredible suffering, said Tilley.

"The latest Harvard study says it takes four or five tries at drug treatment over eight years to gain one year of sobriety," he said, raising another interesting point that doesn't get talked about. "There's an idea that we should give folks a second chance. The popular phrase. Addiction is a disease of relapse."

Tilley went on to talk about the definitions of possession and trafficking, noting that Kentucky has very liberal definitions.

"We can hold people accountable without state prison time," added Tilley. "Don't mistake justice. Justice doesn't always equal punishment, that can be an aspect of it."

Tilley said a focus should be on public safety and funding that, also noting later in his address that judges and prosecutors have too much discretion.

An advocate for legislative change, Tilley hopes the commonwealth will modernize their funding threshold level and change the way traffickers are dealt with. Rather than spending the money on the back end Tilley hopes to eventually spend it on the front end.

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