America’s criminal justice system wasn’t designed for a drug epidemic on the scale of the opioid crisis. For four years I was at the epicenter in North Carolina, where as a small-town lawyer, the best I could often do was beg for probation in exchange for pleading my client to a low-level felony.
My job was to keep people out of jail, but I couldn’t control what kept bringing my clients back into the courtroom.
A common example was a young mother, caught with pills and charged with a felony for possession with intent to sell; loses her job because she couldn’t afford the bail set at $1,500; pleads guilty to the felony in return for probation so she can get out of jail; fails the drug tests on probation and ends up with the felony on her record; loses her driver’s license because of unpaid court costs and fines; and then her children because she cannot afford to provide them with food, clothing, and shelter.
I saw that every week: Someone who entered the courtroom an addict and exited a criminal. According to the North Carolina Second Chance Alliance, more than 2 million people in the state have criminal records, 90 percent of large employers ask about that history, and more than 1,000 different laws in the state deny rights and privileges due to convictions.
And like in many states, it’s difficult to expunge those convictions because of long waiting periods and narrow rules of eligibility, which makes it hard for a person to find a decent job or stable housing, or obtain the education they want. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in 2014 the United States went without an estimated $78 to $87 billion in gross domestic product because of people who were unable to reenter society and participate in the workforce due to their criminal background. And that’s devastating for communities that were hardest hit by the opioid epidemic.
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My hometown in the foothills of North Carolina was once the home of some of the largest manufacturing businesses, including the American Furniture Company. But slowly those jobs left town and went to China, or were lost to automation. From the year 2000, when that company finally closed, to 2014, my county experienced the second worst decline of median income in the United States: from $47,992 to $33,398.
And that’s when the pills came in. Doctors overprescribed Oxycontin, Vicodin, and Percocet to people who were in pain and out of work. Many got hooked and some sold the painkillers on a black market out of their medicine cabinet. In 2007, the county experienced the third highest overdose rate in the country.
Because of a lack of funding at the state level, there’s no public defender’s office. So when I came home to work as a lawyer, I took appointed cases to supplement what I brought into our firm as a young criminal defense attorney. That meant representing as many as 15 clients a day and sometimes as many as 50 in a week. We’d be lucky to meet for more than a few minutes at a time to go over the facts before trial or to run through a plea offer while standing next to a bailiff in one of the holding cells behind the courtroom.
For every case disposed, I’d get appointed to another. Drugs were an underlying factor in almost every fact pattern.
My county wasn’t unique. The same forces of globalization and automation were devastating towns all across the country. But we didn’t discuss what was happening in those terms, and we didn’t learn about these deaths of despair by reading about them in The Atlantic. The stories were personal. It wasn’t uncommon to walk into the courtroom and see the faces of childhood friends, a young man from church, or even a next-door neighbor.
There’s a stereotype that the opioid crisis affects only middle-aged white men, but addiction doesn’t discriminate by age, race, or education level. Where there is discrimination, though, is in access to treatment. If you were from a rich household, or had a strong support system, your family could afford to send you to rehabilitation for as long as it took, up to a couple of years if need be. For everyone else, recovery options were limited and usually led back to the courtroom. (In North Carolina, programs like the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant spend more than $44 million per year on recovery services, but without Medicaid expansion, many in recovery are still on their own and unable to afford inpatient treatment.)
What happened in my town happened before, in the 1970s and the 1980s, when cities hollowed out and the response to a crack epidemic was mass incarceration. Now, because of organizers and advocates in those communities, the urban incarceration rate has declined in recent years. But because of the opioid crisis, since 2013, the incarceration rate in rural America has risen by 26 percent.
Today there is legislation in North Carolina called the Second Chance Act that would expand eligibility for record expungement. Hopefully, lawmakers will get that bill passed soon. What I saw in an Appalachian courtroom wasn’t because my hometown was full of bad people. It was because the factories closed and we treated poverty and addiction by locking up the victims.