Congress OKs $1 Billion to Tackle America’s Drug Crisis

The 21st Century Cures Act approved yesterday contains provisions aimed at curbing the nation’s opioid epidemic including treatment programs and drug courts. It’s the second piece of legislation impacting criminal justice passed in this Congress’ final days.

Photo by Kaushik Narasimhan via Flickr

Photo by Kaushik Narasimhan via Flickr

The Congress that some feared would fail to pass any significant criminal justice legislation has produced one more major bill in its final days—the 21st Century Cures Act.

While the measure that got final approval in the Senate yesterday concentrates on mainstream health issues, it also contains several elements that are welcomed by advocacy groups and officials in the justice field.

President Obama has vowed to sign it before he leaves office next month.

The key provision authorizes $1 billion in grants over two years to states to address drug addiction problems via prevention, treatment, prescription drug monitoring, and other programs.

Much legislation that emerges from Capitol Hill suggests that it will bring huge sums that never materialize, but this one is almost certain to come with actual funds.

Congress must pass an appropriations bill to keep the federal government in operation into Donald Trump’s presidency starting Jan. 20.

Yesterday, the same day that the “Cures” bill passed, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) introduced a government spending bill that would provide the first year’s portion of the grant money, $500 million. The money is expected to be backed by legislators from both major parties.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), whose state has been hard hit by the opioid epidemic, noted that one life is lost to opioid addiction in the U.S. every twelve minutes. He said the new bill “will give the millions of families affected by addiction more hope, and I believe that it will make a difference in their lives.”

When the House approved the “Cures” bill just last week, Rep. Ann Kuster (D-NH) of the House Bipartisan Task Force to Combat the Heroin Epidemic, said, “We’ve long known in New Hampshire that the opioid epidemic needs to be treated like the public health emergency that it is.”

Another provision of the new bill would create federal drug courts. States have widely adopted the drug court model, in which defendants are ordered to get treatment under close supervision of judges and other officials, since the first one was created in 1989 in Miami by the late former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, then the chief local prosecutor, and others. There are now more than 3,000 drug courts around the U.S., but none in the federal court system.

Among other provisions, the new legislation creates a program for alternatives to incarceration for people with substance-abuse problems, expands the existing STOP Act (Sober Truth on Preventing Underage Drinking), and authorizes $12.5 million for “community crisis” responses to both substance abuse and mental disorders.

The “Cures” bill contains several provisions proposed by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) to improve mental health care nationwide. The measures may have a spillover impact in the criminal justice system, where a large number of prison and jail inmates suffer from mental problems.

The new law supplements the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), which President Obama signed last summer. That law was passed with bipartisan support from candidates for election last month who were being pressured to take some action to deal with the opioid overdose crisis that has hit many parts of the nation.

Yet CARA provided relatively little new funding, a problem that the measure passed yesterday will help solve.

One looming question is whether the administration of Donald Trump, who may reduce some federal justice programs such as monitoring of local police departments for civil-rights violations, will embrace more spending on anti-drug efforts.

Advocates are optimistic. They note that during the campaign this fall, Trump praised CARA as “an important step,” vowed to expand first responders’ access to the life-saving substance Narcan, encourage treatment for people struggling with addiction, and incentivize state and local governments to mandate treatment, reported STAT, a website focusing on health, medicine, and science news.

The number of deaths in the U.S. from opioid overdose has almost quadrupled since 1999, reaching a record high of more than 28,000 in 2014. STAT noted that the problem has been especially severe in rural counties along the Rust Belt, which provided crucial support to Trump in historically Democratic areas.

While Congress in the waning days of its two-year session took action on the drug problem and on a bill known as Justice for All that deals with forensic testing, prison rapes, and other issues (for more details, see The Crime Report, December 2, 2016), there were no final votes this year on a number of competing bills aimed at reforming the federal sentencing system.

Given opposition to one such bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee by panel member Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Trump’s nominee for attorney general, and a clear lack of support by Trump himself, the outlook for sentencing reform next year seems bleak.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcomed.

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