One Unexpected Effect of Tennessee's Opioid Crisis? Longer Jail Stays for Women
Jessica Carter was in bed with her boyfriend, still high on methamphetamines and painkillers, when members of a Williamson County drug task force busted down the door with guns drawn.
Carter, her boyfriend and boyfriend's brother were each charged with the same 11 drug-related felony offenses.
Ten months later, the two men were out of jail working on meeting the terms of their probation.
Carter, 25, was still behind bars.
One unexpected effect of Tennessee's opioid epidemic is that women going through Tennessee's drug courts spend more time in jail than men arrested for the same crimes.
Taxpayers foot the bill for those longer jail stays.
In some cases, women spend six or more months longer in jail than men, waiting for a spot in minimum security residential treatment facilities where addicts convicted of non-violent felonies are often sent by drug court judges as a condition of probation.
The inequity in jail stays is a result of an opioid crisis that is ensnaring far more women than drug court judges have seen in the past.
"The demographics have just flipped on me," said Judge Seth Norman, presiding judge of Davidson County Drug Court. "Five years ago we were never full on the female side. Now the waiting list for women is at least six months. If I opened a 100-bed facility for women tomorrow morning, it would be filled by tomorrow night."
Norman and other drug court judges across the state have been trying for two years to get funding from the legislature to open other facilities.
So far, they haven't succeeded.
'I feel a little forgotten'
That's left women idling in jail like Carter, who started smoking marijuana then doing heroin and pain pills at a young age after her father was convicted of molesting her.
"I feel a little forgotten," Carter said in an interview with the USA Today Network - Tennessee.
"Jail is just wasted time. And the longer I am here, the longer it's going to take me to finally finish probation and finish the program and get back to trying to live a productive life."
More women addicts, fewer options
In a typical day in the women's program at the Nashville minimum security facility known as "DC4" a crew of about a dozen women wearing shorts and t-shirts head to a shed to fire up lawnmowers and hedgers to take to the baseball field behind the west Nashville facility.
The women work every day, part of a regimented schedule that includes intensive daily group and individual counseling.
On one scorching Tuesday morning, six women ducked under the shade of a baseball dugout to take a water break and talk about how they got there.
Jennifer Swanson, 36, spent 6 months in Cumberland County jail after being arrested on drug charges before being transferred to DC4.
Carey Ann Shelton, 36, was arrested for forging painkiller prescriptions then waited 15 months behind bars after being approved for the residential program.
The wait for Sandra Millaway, 39, was 9 months in a Bradley County jail.
"I don't mind the time here, because I need to learn how to take care of myself," said Millaway, who said she has been addicted to methamphetamines and opiates since she was 14.
"But with all that time in jail time it means I'm away from my kids that much longer. They really need momma."
Millaway's three children, ages 5, 12 and 14, are living with her mother.
Norman, the Davidson County judge, said the men who go through his court program typically wait no more than three or four months to arrive at the facility.
Longer jail time, higher costs
Incarceration in Tennessee costs approximately $76 per day while the cost of housing, feeding and treating people in minimum security alternative programs is closer to $56 per day, according to Norman.
Drug courts were set up as an alternative to incarceration for individuals arrested for non-violent felonies related to addiction — such as drug possession or robbery to support a drug habits.
The purpose of the drug court system is to provide addicts with a structured program with rewards and punishments that are designed to enforce sobriety - and keep individuals from returning to crime and addiction.
Drug court judges have the discretion to reduce long criminal sentences to probation with conditions. Judges can require people to attend 12-step meetings, counseling, random drug screens and community service.
But for people with entrenched drug addictions, judges often require residential treatment as a probation condition.
In east and Middle Tennessee, the two main options for that treatment is DC4, a minimum security facility in west Nashville with space for 24 women and 60 men, and a Morgan County facility for men that 70 beds.
Once admitted to the minimum security treatment facilities, men and women typically spend between 18 and 24 months at the facilities.
Within months of arriving at DC4 or the Morgan County men's facility, residents are expected to find outside work and pay a portion of the costs of their stay.
Jail as detox
Not all the time spent in jail waiting for a treatment spot is a bad thing, said Judge James Martin, who presides over the drug court in Williamson County.
Martin ensures that men and women in his drug court are given jail homework while they wait. They're asked to write an autobiography, complete a workbook and attend in-jail recovery programs — while they detox from years of drug abuse. He does not keep track of wait times for women versus men.
"If you've got a person who is a long term meth user it takes quite a while to get it out of their system," he said.
But Martin has joined other judges in Tennessee who are asking the legislature for more funding for an additional women's only treatment facility in middle Tennessee along with a facility in west Tennessee that can serve both men and women.
The alternatives to prison for hard-core addicts pays off, he said.
"What you see is when we've had participants plead in and go to Morgan County or DC4, they come out absolutely different human beings," he said.