Heroin and prescription drug abuse were the focus of a bipartisan Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week.

“America is experiencing a historic epidemic of drug overdose deaths. Over 47,000 died from overdoses in 2014 … more deaths than resulted from either car crashes or gun violence,” said committee chair Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in his opening remarks.

“Addiction to opioids, primarily prescription painkillers and heroin is driving this epidemic. It is destroying lives, families and the fabric of entire communities,” he added.

Pew Charitable Trusts found that more than 21 million folks struggled with substance abuse in 2013, with only 18 percent receiving treatment.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported around 25,000 prescription drug overdose deaths in 2014.

Grassley shared similarly harrowing figures: 10 million reported abusing prescription opioids in 2014 and around 900,000 used heroin in 2014.

He also noted the connection between prescription drug abuse and heroin addiction – “In some cases, those addicted to painkillers turn to heroin to get a similar high because recently it’s become cheaper and more easily available.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), ranking committee member, urged looking at the human impact behind these numbers.

“Families trying to find and afford treatment for a loved one hooked on painkillers, children neglected or left behind by an addicted parent, victims of crime fueled by addiction, law enforcement and community officials overwhelmed by the flood of opioids and cheap heroin.”

“It’s not a question of whether or not there is an epidemic,” Leahy continued. “It’s what do we do about it?” He stressed, “One thing is clear: we cannot arrest or jail our way out of this problem.”

Grassley and Leahy have co-sponsored bipartisan legislation – The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act – that includes a proposal to reduce mandatory minimums for certain crimes, including substance abuse. It is currently on the legislative calendar to be considered by the entire Senate.

These opening remarks made clear that prescription drug abuse is a growing problem – taking place across the U.S. in both rural and urban areas and becoming a leading factor in incarceration.

This reality was confirmed by Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire), Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Vermont’s Democrat Gov. Peter Shumlin, who spoke at the hearing and highlighted the challenges posed by drug addiction and abuse in their states.

Ayotte said drug abuse was New Hampshire’s “most urgent health and public safety crisis.”

Shaheen called the opioid crises a pandemic “affecting young and old … urban and rural, rich and poor, white and minorities, and it’s spreading to every state in this country.”

Ayotte and Shaheen are co-sponsors of the bipartisan Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which proposes a task force to determine best practices for pain management to curb the growing number of persons addicted to pain medication.

Portman noted that he hears stories continually across Ohio of how “addiction is ruining lives, tearing apart families, devastating communities.”

Shumlin commented, “Vermont has the same heartbreaking stories” shared by his colleagues.

When he recognized the extent of opioid addiction and abuse in his state a few years ago, he began to assess the reasons for the issue and how to address it.

Shumlin found that “we were doing almost everything wrong.” He explained, “Our criminal justice system was designed to maximize addicts going to prison and not going to treatment.” Long waiting periods to be sentenced after the initial arrest gave individuals time to begin using opioids again and, subsequently, to commit crimes to feed their addiction.

Vermont changed their approach, Shumlin said, implementing a system to determine, at the point of arrest, whether the person is dangerous and should be sentenced to jail, or whether they should receive mandated substance abuse treatment. They have also expanded their substance abuse treatment centers.

“All I can tell you is that it is working,” he commented. “It has reduced our incarcerated population dramatically. Vermont saved $50 million in the last several years [by] not locking folks up but instead getting them into the treatment programs and back into a productive life.”

A handful of other senators, as well as U.S. officials in substance abuse, drug enforcement and healthcare positions, spoke during the more than three-hour hearing – confirming the scope of the problem and sharing details on ways that the U.S. government is working to help state and local leaders address the opioid epidemic.

One segment of EthicsDaily.com’s documentary on faith and prisons, “Through the Door,” focuses on the connection between substance abuse and incarceration.

“The majority of our clients are people who have substance abuse problems,” said Anthony Metcalf of Churches Embracing Offenders, an Indiana re-entry program for nonviolent offenders. “But again, that goes back to the majority of crimes committed are substance related.”

“If you had to choose one element of why people are in prison at the rates they’re in today, drug addiction, drug abuse is it,” said William Gupton, assistant commissioner of rehabilitative services for the Tennessee Department of Correction. “For a while, cocaine was ‘king’ … in the drug culture; I think that has shifted to prescription drugs.”

David Valentine, pastor of Covenant Fellowship Church in Huntsville, Texas, speaking about persons with drug addictions facing the possibility of imprisonment, emphasized, “They need therapy. They don’t need incarceration in a prison system.”

Editor’s note: Learn more about “Through the Door” here and order a copy of the film on DVD here. A free resource sheet on prisons and prison reform initiatives is available for download here.

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