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Changing Course in the Overdose Crisis: Moving from Punishment to Harm Reduction and Health: Fact Sheet

Vera Institute of Justice – 2020

This report shares the findings of a study that examined the intersection of problematic drug use and the criminal justice system, and offers practical guidance for practitioners, policymakers, and funders by compiling the wide range of interventions that communities can consider to minimize justice system contact for people who use drugs and improve public health and safety. The analysis, observations, and recommendations in the report are based on a review of the literature, interviews with experts, and site visits to Ross County, Ohio and Atlanta, Georgia. Promising practices from the field include: collaboration and information sharing among health providers, justice system agencies, and community members can foster holistic responses to problematic drug use and support overdose prevention; efforts to downsize reliance on the criminal justice system and strengthen community-based services have been driven by people and community groups with direct experience of drug use and the justice system and focused on issues of racial and gender justice; increasing naloxone access results in a decrease in drug overdose deaths; syringe service programs and other harm reduction services work best when state laws permit their operation and expansion and when local police understand their benefits for community health and do not interfere with service delivery; diversion initiatives can also catalyze criminal justice reform by engaging justice system stakeholders, building support for alternatives to arrest and criminalization, and strengthening the infrastructure for health and social services; public education and open conversation about problematic drug use led by respected community leaders can reduce stigma and increase support for adoption of evidence-based practices. Recommendations are made for adopting harm reduction across the justice continuum, moving responses upstream, diversifying definitions of recovery, empowering people who use drugs, and centering racial equity and justice.