Doug Varney, Tennessee’s mental health commissioner, speaks at the ‘Recovery Court’ facility in Morgan County. Photo provided by state of Tennessee.
Doug Varney never thought he would see the day when narcotics would pass alcohol as Tennessee’s number one substance abuse problem.
But that day has come, and Varney — the state’s mental health commissioner — now has a tool to address the situation.
The Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) have opened the first statewide residential “Recovery Court” at a 100-bed facility for male drug offenders in the Morgan County city of Wartburg, about 45 miles west of Knoxville.
The newly established program will allow the state to divert people in need of substance abuse treatment or mental health services from hard prison beds to treatment programs with a goal of reducing recidivism.
“I think it will work because all of these people will be suffering from addiction,” Varney, the former president and CEO of Gray, Tenn.-based Frontier Health, said of the program.
“We think if we put them in a drug rehab program it will be a much better and wiser use of taxpayers’ money because while they are in the program, they will get treatment and help, and get them off their addiction, and teach them the kind of skills to succeed. There will be linkages to the community they will be going back to for follow-up (treatment). ... So it is a comprehensive kind of approach. It will be less expensive than just incarcerating someone and failing with them. It’s a more structured rehabilitation effort.”
The nine-month program, offering round-the-clock services, will be operated by the Davidson County Drug Court Support Foundation, a private entity.
The state of Tennessee says the program will cost $35 per person daily, compared with the $65 average daily cost of a prisoner.
“While incarceration is expensive, this isn’t just about saving dollars,” Varney said. “It is about doing what is best for public safety.”
The state cites statistics indicating people who participate in evidence-based community programs go back to prison at about one-third the rate of people who don’t.
Those in the Recovery Court program will be eligible for alternative sentencing.
“This program should not be considered being soft on crime,” TDOC Commissioner Derrick Schofield said. “What it says is that we’re going to place people in the best option to ensure they don’t re-offend. But also, we’re going to make sure we have a prison bed available for people who commit violent offenses that harm our communities.”
Varney explained the program will be voluntary, and the Wartburg facility won’t have the same security as a state prison.
“Everyone going there will be recommended by a local judge. They have to be committed to the program,” Varney said of the facility’s population. “... This is an important milestone for our state. ... These are people who normally would go to prison. They would be in a hard bed. In many ways, it’s a last chance for people to really turn their lives around. ... People make choices and they have to be committed to this program. If they don’t, they will find themselves in a hard bed prison somewhere.”
People in the Recovery Court program will help with the facility’s upkeep and do “things in prison we would have to pay for,” said Varney.
The program is a clear recognition that prescription drug abuse is a growing health concern. According to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 30 percent of prescription painkiller deaths involve methadone, even though only 2 percent of painkiller prescriptions are for this drug.
Like other states, Tennessee has enacted “doctor shopping” laws to deter and prosecute people obtaining multiple prescriptions for controlled substances from different health-care practitioners without their knowledge. The state also has tightened regulations for pain management clinics.
“Seventy percent of all these drugs come from family and friends,” Varney said. “It’s people getting prescriptions and misusing those. ... If this (Recovery Court) model succeeds we will try a women’s program next.”
Tennessee’s budget for the current fiscal year included $1.56 million to establish other Recovery Court programs across the state.
For more about the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services go to www.tn.gov/mental/A&D/index.html.