Barbara Pierce, Director of Justice Initiatives

For years, much time and money has been poured into addressing the opioid crisis. And rightly so – 50,000 people died in 2019 from an overdose associated with opioids, representing more than 70% of drug overdose deaths overall. That number continues to climb: the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there were more than 75,000 opioid-related overdose deaths in the year ending April 2021.

What people talk about much less is the increase in the use of methamphetamine and the different challenges it poses for people who use it, and for the justice system.

Overdoses from methamphetamine are less common than from opioids, yet have risen dramatically in the last few years. There are also other significant neurological, behavioral, and physical effects from long-term use of methamphetamine.

In addition, there is a lack of understanding by many about methamphetamine trends. Drug cases involving methamphetamine grew steadily from 2012-2019. It was by far the number one drug identified by laboratories testing substances for drug cases in 2020. In fact, this is true in each region of the country except for the northeast.

Most of those who work in the justice system don’t want to punish people for substance use disorders, and many jurisdictions have developed ways to divert people into treatment at different points in the system. Methamphetamine use is proving to be more of a challenge than opioids in this regard because there are currently no medications to assist people in achieving recovery, and in many areas of the country there are few methamphetamine treatment options.

Also concerning is the impact of methamphetamine on the brain and behavior. Chronic meth users can exhibit violent behavior, anxiety, confusion, insomnia, and psychotic features including paranoia, aggression, visual and auditory hallucinations, mood disturbances, and delusions. Some of this conduct may increase the likelihood of someone's involvement in the justice system.

Two of the jurisdictions CJI works with are leveraging the justice system and increasing their commitment to diverting people from jails into treatment to get them the help they need despite the challenges meth poses. Read more about the two jurisdictions below.

This country has made great strides in diverting people from the justice system into treatment and using the power of the court to encourage people to participate in the treatment they need. While methamphetamine use disorders certainly pose unique challenges for both the justice and treatment systems, the significant impacts on people’s health, their families, and our communities require us to focus far more attention on it, and make larger investments in solutions that follow the best evidence we have right now, and to continue to develop more effective treatment options.
  • Through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), states have improved public safety by reducing recidivism, using resources more effectively, and achieving better outcomes for impacted individuals and communities. A new guide for state policymakers details the entire JRI process, breaking it down step by step. 

  • Many states have enacted comprehensive justice system reforms to reduce the use of incarceration and community supervision with the aim of focusing resources on people at higher risk of reoffending and investing in strategies to achieve better outcomes for people and communities. CJI partnered with the Urban Institute to assess policy reforms in six states: Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, and Utah.

  • The final report from the Louisiana Women’s Incarceration Task Force, released in 2020 with support from CJI through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, received a National Documents Award from the Legislative Research Librarians’ professional staff association. The association’s awards recognize excellence in documents that explore topics of interest to legislators and legislative staff, and present substantive material in an outstanding format.

  • Throughout the U.S., governors, courts, corrections systems, and law enforcement agencies continue to implement new policies to limit the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons. CJI continues to track responses.
Two jurisdictions that CJI works with are leveraging the justice system and increasing their commitment to diverting people from jails into treatment to get them the help they need.

The Kentucky Court of Justice recently began developing a Recovery-Oriented System of Care to focus the court and its partners on improving outcomes for individuals with substance use disorders. One team member leading the planning is Letcher County District Judge Kevin R. Mullins.

In response to the opioid epidemic, his community had established a system of peer supports and treatment in 2018. “By having that local system of care already in place, we were able to help a lot of people when methamphetamine roared through our community.” In 2019, for example, the Letcher District Court, working with its community partners, was able to get 262 residents into inpatient treatment primarily for stimulant use disorder; 71% of these people had been in the county jail.

“Our program was done without any grants, federal funding, or assistance from any university or corporations,” Mullins said. “We have succeeded in combatting methamphetamine addiction in Letcher County (pop. 22,000) solely based upon education and determination.”
In Pennington County, South Dakota, the Sheriff’s Office experienced a significant uptick in methamphetamine-related arrests and jail bookings since 2012 and an uptick in drug-related violent crime from 2019 to the present.

“The violence associated with methamphetamine users has permeated almost every aspect of crime in our community,” said Sheriff Kevin Thom. Looking for a solution to the meth-related revolving door of the jail, the Sheriff’s Office started and continues to run an Intensive Meth Treatment Program in its community-based Care Campus across the street from the jail.
Thanks to our many partners and funders who help us make this work happen, including Arnold Ventures, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), National Institute of Corrections, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), Pew Charitable Trusts, and several state, regional, and local jurisdictions.