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With Emphasis on Treatment, Prosecutors & Jails Prepare for New Heroin Law

In the waning days of the 2015 Kentucky General Assembly session, a so-called heroin bill was passed and signed into law by Governor Steve Beshear.

"Northern Kentucky has been hit harder than most any area across the nation from the impacts of heroin and I pray that this bill is another step forward to end the distribution of this drug in my home community and begin to save lives," said Senator Chris McDaniel (R-Taylor Mill) at the time. 

McDaniel spoke to the Covington City Commission about the bill last week. Calling Covington "the epicenter" of the region's widespread and growing heroin epidemic, McDaniel said the bill increases access to help for addicts and also penalties for dealers, particularly those from out of state. "If someone brings heroin in from Cincinnati, that's an offense in and of itself," said the first-term senator who is running for Lieutenant Governor on a ticket with gubernatorial candidate James Comer, the commissioner of agriculture, in May's Republican primary. "Now it adds five to ten years to the prison sentence."

There is also a local option needle exchange program allowed by the bill, meaning local governmental bodies and health boards would have to jointly approve the launch of such a program.

Covington leaders welcomed the news of a new heroin bill, particularly after a similar bill died in the 2014 session's final moments. "I know it wasn't easy. There were a lot of different perspectives. I know everybody wanted to do something but weren't sure of the best route to go," said Mayor Sherry Carran who also serves on the region;s Heroin Impact Response Team. "I think you came up with a solid bill and I can't thank you enough."

"Ultimately, I feel very confident we passed a very good, solid wraparound bill," McDaniel said.

Commissioner Steve Frank welcomed the needle exchange idea. "Now that we have cures for (Hepatitis C) and HIV treatments that are very expensive, if someone ends up incarcerated, we the people have to pay $100,000 for the treatment of someone with Hep C," he said. "If you have a needle exchange, for a couple a couple of bucks (per needle) you can save us from literally breaking the bank."

The new law also features a "Good Samaritan" provision, which shields heroin addicts from prosecution if they provide their name and address when reporting a heroin overdose. The legislation immediately infuses $10 million into Kentucky's treatment system, followed by $24 million annually from money saved from prior judicial reforms designed to reduce prison costs by providing lawbreakers with drug treatment.

That is welcome news to Kenton County Jailer Terry Carl whose at-capacity detention center is often the scene where addicts come down from their heroin highs, a detox that can stretch from 7 to 10 days. "It's like a bad flu," Carl said. There is diarrhea, cramps, chills. "It's pretty messy."

"Our detox cases have increased from maybe three or four a day two or three years ago to 20 to 25 a day, detoxing," Carl said. Some of the efforts being pursued at the detention center include the possibility of assigning inmates a case worker who would be there for them while they pursue treatment at St. Elizabeth Hospital. "Treatment is essential. If we can get them treatment and maybe get them a shot where they continue with a case worker and get to St. E and continue that shot, maybe there's a chance they won't OD."

St. Elizabeth statistics show that heroin overdoses continue to rise in Northern Kentucky. "We want to treat them before they leave the jail and there have been different stories through Huffington Post and elsewhere that current treatment is not working," Carl said. "We think that treatment and maybe with some medical intervention that there's a possibility these individuals can maybe start living a normal life."

The philosophy of treating addicted inmates extends to Campbell County where state officials approved plans last week of a nearly $7 million expansion of the detention center in Newport mainly designed to add more isolation cells for addicts.

Reaching those who are facing criminal charges while suffering from addiction is also a priority of the Kenton County Commonwealth's Attorney Office where Rob Sanders and assistant prosecutor and longtime Northern Kentucky defense attorney Burr Travis are working out plans. The criminal dockets at Kenton Circuit & District Courts are often dominated by heroin possession cases or criminal cases related to someone's addiction. The inner city's increase in prostitution arrests is believed to be directly linked to the heroin epidemic.

"Some of the changes that the Heroin Bill has made to the law has caused us to retool our approach," Sanders told The River City News. "One of the things we are incorporating into our new position is we have gotten the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts to agree to let Kenton County have a pilot program for putting addicts into Drug Court at the time of their arraignment in District Court, whereas right now, they can't get into Drug Court until they are sentenced on a felony which is usually anywhere from three to nine months after they were arrested."

Because Drug Court has a limited capacity, the new option will be reserved for the "worst of the worst" addicts," Sanders said. "The way we are looking at it was those people found unconscious with a needle sticking out of their arm in the midst of an overdoes," he said. There are two to five cases a week in Kenton County where people are found unresponsive and brought back to life by paramedics, Sanders said.

The new bill further provides for the administration of naloxone, a medication used to counter the effects of an overdose, by first responders. Some funding will also be made available for Vivtrol, a drug to help addicts who are working to stay drug free, and what Carl referenced as "a shot" for the addicted inmates who are trying to stay clean, by choice or court order.

Burr Travis was "probably the best defense attorney I've ever seen when it comes to his clients having serious addiction issues and finding treatment options tailored to their situations," Sanders said of the latest prominent Northern Kentucky attorney to join the prosecutor's office. "Depending on where you are in the world, what kind of resources you have, whether you have a stable home environment, all sorts of issues come into play."

Currently, Travis screens the cases of addicts as they come into the office and he flags the defendants that are charged solely with possession. "He sort of gets a feel for, is this somebody's first time in the court system or is this a frequent flyer, and he contacts the defense attorney and immediately goes to work putting together a treatment plan for that defendant that is tailored for that individual's needs and available resources," Sanders said.

Though officials joint programs with local treatment centers are still being worked out, Travis is connected with those in the treatment community who are able to help the targeted inmates. "Basically, they know Burr so well, he's done so much to help the community of addicts and community of treatment providers, they're willing to work with him and do him favors, more or less."

Right now, the treatment efforts at the Commonwealth's Attorney Office is focused solely on heroin, though the scope may widen down the road, Travis told The River City News. Expediting access to treatment can mean the difference between life and death, he said. 

"A guy arrested today would be arraigned tomorrow and by the time he went through the system, arraigned, indicted, plea, and sentenced, it could take between four to six months," Travis said. "If a guy is using heroin, he could die. He's going to continue to do criminal activity to get the heroin, and we thought it was necessary to get to these people earlier."

Under the plan developed by Sanders and Travis, by the time a defendant goes through the legal process and ultimately makes a plea or is sentenced, there would already have been three to four months of treatment. When a judge presides over a preliminary hearing, early in the legal process, a bond condition could include outpatient treatment or a residential treatment bed in order to be released from jail, Travis said. "We're almost saving the people from themselves to some degree."

The court system locally is in support of the plan, according to Travis, and now plans are to solidify a plan with a treatment center to do pickups at the jail. "When that's done, we're a go," he said.

"Heroin is important business in Kenton County and we're treating it accordingly, trying to help everyone we can to resolve this problem," Travis said. "I was a defense counsel for 35 years. I want on the other side. I've been on the other side of the prosecutor for a long time and prosecutors generally don't have this attitude that (Sanders) has, that we need to help these people. (Sanders) has got the attitude that he's going to do whatever it takes to help this."

There is one side of the heroin trade that will continue to receive no sympathy: dealers. "The best thing to come out of the Heroin Bill is anyone convicted of trafficking heroin on a Class C (felony) range is now required to serve 50% of the sentence before being parole eligible," Sanders said. "That will put more teeth into our trafficking laws so that hopefully the dealers from Ohio won't see the Welcome To Kentucky sign quite as attractive as they have since House Bill 463 passed." HB 463 was signed by the governor in 2011 as part of an effort to attack the state's prescription drug abuse problem, reducing penalties from some drug-related crimes and pushing defendants into treatment programs.

Too often, it pushed users to heroin, a cheaper and more accessible option, and much of the trade in Northern Kentucky is imported from Ohio.

"Proving heroin came from out of state is easier said than done but it will double the punishment," Sanders said. 

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Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News