The Legal Action Center is excited to announce that we will be hosting an Equal Justice Works Fellow to launch a project that will expand access to opioid addiction treatment in the criminal justice system. The prospective fellow, Melissa Trent, is currently completing her third year at the University of California Berkeley School of Law. Her project will include legal services, education, and policy advocacy to increase the use of life-saving opioid addiction medication for people under criminal justice supervision. Her two-year fellowship will begin in September 2015 and is sponsored by Friends and Family of Phillip M. Stern.
Over 2.5 million Americans suffer from opioid addiction with almost 50 people dying from heroin or prescription drug overdoses every day. Scientific research has firmly established that medication-assisted treatment (MAT) reduces addiction, infectious-disease transmission, and criminal activity, while improving social functioning and saving lives. This type of treatment combines counseling with medications such as methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone, which block opioids’ euphoric effects and relieve relapse-inducing cravings.
Despite MAT’s scientifically-established benefits, the criminal justice system routinely forces court-involved people off life-saving medication. Most often, courts mistakenly cite the view that these medications are “substituting one addiction for another.” In truth, when appropriately prescribed, these medications prevent individuals from getting high and enable them to work, raise families, and otherwise function productively. Denying access to MAT is not only bad policy, it violates anti-discrimination laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
LAC has undertaken three initiatives to increase MAT access:
- advocacy for alternative to incarceration programs that divert individuals from jail into treatment,
- ongoing efforts to increase funding for such treatment, and
- ensuring that implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) expands access to a wide range of addiction treatment in accordance with the ACA’s own provisions and those of earlier laws requiring parity between mental health/addiction services and other treatments.
But LAC has wanted to expand this work to include fighting discriminatory practices within the criminal justice system that keep people from receiving this effective treatment. In 2011, LAC issued a report explaining why forced MAT termination can violate discrimination laws. Since then, a steady stream of individuals, their family members, and their healthcare providers, have called for LAC’s help fighting probation and court orders to discontinue MAT. A lack of resources has limited LAC’s response.
The holistic program envisioned in this Equal Justice Works Fellowship fits perfectly into LAC’s strategic vision for expanding access to this live-saving treatment. Ms. Trent has brought new ideas, including ways to work more directly with people with addiction and their families and equipping them to be advocates for their treatment. Her dedication and personal experience on this issue makes her an ideal candidate to carry out the project. Welcome, Melissa!
For more information on our MAT work, please read our 2011 report “Legality of Denying Access to Medication Assisted Treatment in the Criminal Justice System” and our 2015 report “Confronting an Epidemic: The Case for Eliminating Barriers to Medication-Assisted Treatment of Heroin and Opioid Addiction”.