How a Judge Would Fix Tennessee’s Drug Crisis
There is a unique facility in Nashville. Referred to as “DC-4,” the Davidson County Drug Court has given me specific insights into both the problems plaguing our state’s justice system and some potential solutions.
DC-4 is unique because it is a court-operated, long-term residential treatment facility for nonviolent felony offenders. People who would normally be sent to the Tennessee Department of Corrections to serve out their sentences are instead placed in this facility, where they can access a residential treatment program for drug addiction.
The average stay at the Tennessee Department of Corrections is three calendar years. In contrast, participants in DC-4’s programming usually take between 18 months and two years of their time at the facility to complete the program.
The average daily cost for housing an individual in the Tennessee Department of Corrections is $76 per day. At DC-4, the average daily cost for housing and treating an individual is $56 per day. Data collected over 10 years shows that this treatment programs saves Tennessee taxpayers approximately $32,000 for each individual who completes it.
But there’s more than just money at stake. Tennessee suffers from a problem common in many states: Prison overcrowding. And the role that drug addiction plays in driving this phenomenon cannot be overstated.
As a criminal court judge with over 25 years of experience, I can say firsthand that at least 70 percent of all of the cases that I handle involve drugs in some fashion. In addition, more than 50 percent of people currently imprisoned in our state are non-violent individuals with addiction problems.
When Nashville’s residential program was started more than 20 years ago, cocaine was the primary drug of choice in Tennessee. Ten years later, methamphetamine reared its ugly head. Now, opioid and heroin use has skyrocketed.
As addiction has changed over the years, so too have the demographics of the addicted population. The number of female offenders has tripled, the average age has decreased, and drug offenders appearing before me seem to be increasingly affluent.
While governing bodies across this country acknowledge the opioid problem, they seem to have taken very little action to combat it. Hardly a day goes by that I do not read a news article that tells the public how bad the problem is, but I rarely see news of legislative action intended to alleviate the problem.
There are several things we can do to fight this problem – but harsher sentences and new prisons are not among them. Rather than spending $120,000 on one new prison bed, our state could spend a mere $40,000 for a treatment bed.
We cannot incarcerate our way out of an addiction crisis, and nonviolent offenders should not be warehoused in facilities that offer no opportunities to break the cycle of addiction, particularly when we have already seen that treatment can be an effective alternative.
This approach is not soft on crime – it’s smart on crime and public health.
I am not a legislator. My job is not to make the law; I am a judge whose duty it is to impose the law.
But I am also a Tennessee taxpayer, and my job has shown me how we might all get a higher return on precious corrections dollars.
If our governing bodies do not decisively step forward and fight the problem of addiction, I will continue to see the consequences, both inside and outside of my courtroom.
JudgeSeth Norman is currently the Judge of Division IV Criminal Court in Davidson County.