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January 5, 2020

Noting the discouraging connection between criminal justice involvement and overdose deaths

This recent Connecticut Mirror piece, headlined "From prison to the grave: Former inmates now account for more than half of all drug overdose deaths in Connecticut," spotlights the disconcerting link between involvement with the criminal justice system and overdose deaths:

Accidental drug overdose deaths tripled in Connecticut between 2010 and 2018, with the proportion of overdose victims with prior involvement in the criminal justice system slowly increasing during that time.

Former inmates account for more than half of the people who died from drug overdoses between 2016 and 2018, according to an analysis of new state data. In 2015, this same group made up 44% of the people who died from an overdose.

Officials with the Office of Policy and Management’s Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division discovered the uptick in drug deaths among former inmates when examining data from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the Department of Correction.

While the data shows an overlap between criminal justice involvement and overdose deaths, many details are still missing.  While officials believe the majority of the overdose deaths are from fentanyl, for example, OPM did not specify this in its analysis.  There has been a dramatic increase in fentanyl-related deaths statewide over the past half-decade, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.  Of 1,017 opioid deaths last year, 75% involved fentanyl. In 2012, fentanyl deaths accounted for 4% of the total.

There are other unanswered questions, as well. “We don’t know whether they were admitted pretrial or served a sentence,” said Marc Pelka, Gov. Ned Lamont’s undersecretary of criminal justice policy and planning. “We don’t know how soon after their release they experienced an accidental drug overdose death.”

Pelka said his office likely would do a deeper dive into the data to learn more about the intersection between arrests and overdose fatalities.  Even without that detail, however, the data is startling, officials said.  “I hope that this whole commission really understands what this shows. Because I’m seeing this come across my desk every day,” Department of Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook told his colleagues on the Criminal Justice Policy Advisory Commission during a recent presentation on the data.  Cook said one of his jobs is to sign off on investigations into overdose deaths of people who have been released from prison but are still under state supervision.

Those reports, Cook said, often show the overdose victims were attending recovery programs and adhering to the terms of their parole.  “They’re doing everything they’re supposed to do,” he said. “Yet we’re still losing them. They’re dying.”

People released from prison are at greater risk of certain early deaths compared to the general population.  Research shows people who get out of prison are 40 times more likely to die of an opioid overdose within two weeks of their release than those who haven’t spent time behind bars.  In Connecticut, white ex-prisoners are more likely to die from drug overdoses, while black former inmates are more likely to die by homicide....

The overlap between criminal justice system involvement and addiction makes sense to Louis Reed, an organizer for the national criminal justice reform group Cut 50.  Criminal records function as scarlet letters, making it hard for people to secure housing or land jobs even after their sentences have ended. “The moment they get a door slammed in their face they most likely are going to go right back to what it is they felt was more comfortable to them,” Reed explained.  Using drugs after a long period of sobriety while incarcerated also poses problems, said Reed. Tolerances decrease when people don’t use for a while.  That puts them at risk of an accidental overdose because their first hit “shocks their system.”

January 5, 2020 at 09:44 PM | Permalink

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