Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Rural Sheriff & Rural Judge Opioid Workshop
April 2, 2019

Thank you Michelle (White) for that introduction.

Welcome everyone.

I hope that you are enjoying your time in Ohio and here at the home of the Supreme Court of Ohio.

I’m sure you will find these days informative and valuable – for you, and for your colleagues back home when you brief them.

I hope each of you take advantage of the networking and information-sharing opportunities this week.

Working across jurisdictional boundaries is a big part of fighting the opioid crisis.

In fact, knocking down boundaries is how we began to really take on this crisis – in earnest – two and a half years ago.

Your meetings here were put together so that rural law enforcement and judges from rural areas can work even more closely together than many of you already do.

We’re trying to help you work smarter together and to work as teams. We also want you to learn – together – the latest information on the crisis and the latest techniques in addressing it…I’d like to say solving it, but quite frankly that would be premature.

Your meetings this week follow an approach we began in 2016 when we convened the Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative in Cincinnati.

That meeting was the first of its kind.

We committed ourselves to breaking down institutional silos, and rolled up our sleeves.

Eight states got together to join hands across boundaries to share common-sense approaches – such as seeing other state’s opioid prescription data, and collaborating on new legislation.

Our hands are still joined. We are working together and digging deeper into the problem, each and every day.

Our Cincinnati meeting brought together not only law enforcement from all levels – and judges and magistrates – but also mental health and medical professionals, academics and legislators.

That regional meeting spun off a national opioid initiative.

And just last month, the six New England states announced their version of this effort.

Our regional group is working in large part from a $1-million-dollar grant from the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Your representative(s) are here today. Thank you for that timely and life-saving assistance.

We have made solid progress.

And, yet, there is still so much work to do as we try to eradicate the scourge of opioids and drug abuse.

I have served as a common pleas court judge and then as county prosecutor. Those years gave me a great perspective into law enforcement.

For four years – before I joined the Supreme Court – I was lieutenant governor of Ohio. At the same time I served as the director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety. One of the divisions of Public Safety is the Ohio State Highway Patrol. I was also active with the Buckeye Sheriff’s Association and the Chiefs of Police.

That public safety director job gave me an even deeper appreciation for the law enforcement community.

I learned that knowing how to react to a crisis is critical.

Because 9/11 and its aftermath took place at that time, I learned that proper reaction will always be critical. But planning ahead – before a crisis, or working to avert one – is even more important.

Our shared task right now is to continue making headway against this crisis that is devastating communities, urban and rural.

I always emphasize that this is a shared task.

Law enforcement’s challenges are shared by judges. The way judges rule on cases can affect the environment for law enforcement.

Being on the same page means not only sharing information but – importantly – learning new ways to cope with this crisis.

And learning together.

That’s why you’re here for these seminars.

Here are a couple of things to think about…..

All of us – judges, sheriffs, deputies, police, health care providers, academics, legislators, government agency professionals – all of us need to look at ourselves and ask:

Are we willing to open our minds to new ways of dealing with offenders?

One way of thinking that may be new to some of you is Medication-Assisted Treatment, or M-A-T.

M-A-T and programs like it were scorned just 5 years ago many experts thought it was a sell-out to the world of illicit drugs. Unfortunately that kind of thinking is still with us.

But our medical and behavioral health colleagues have established that some offenders because of their addiction and their physiology must be placed on alternative medications. Only then can they improve.

Another consideration for you is support and understanding for behavioral health.

Each of our counties employs behavioral health professionals. This has been the case in Ohio for decades.

But the crisis in opioids and other drugs – including continued abuse of alcohol – has swamped these offices, which have always been on the edge when it comes to funding.

For those of you from out of state, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about when it comes to the dollars needed to keep these local programs going.

Dealing with offenders directly means helping them deal with their problems.

It’s sometimes difficult to “sell” that idea, as well, in some local communities.

You can be accused of being soft on crime.

But that’s wrong and quite frankly ignorant.

The fact is – you are being hard on your community if you turn away from the new information and experiences that we have today.

Medication-Assisted Treatment.

Behavioral health initiatives.

These are some of the important measures that are helping us deal with this monster crisis.

When you achieve positive results, then you will be in a position to explain these different paths in your community.

When better results bring less jail time and lower incident rates, your communities will spend less money.

Better yet, you will have helped offenders turn their lives around. That will help their families, friends and neighbors.

It is often a longer road.

For example, when it comes to Medication-Assisted Treatment, this can mean weaning a person off drugs. But others may need to stay on medication for life.

We send offenders to jail – but is jail a good place for someone to detox?

We call it drug addiction. But this is really a disease. As you know, some people take medication their entire life to treat their disease.

There’s a better way of saying it, too – substance abuse disorder.

This is not to say that there is no room for traditional law-enforcement techniques and consequences. Not at all.

One of the biggest challenges is the very nature of drug dealing. The criminal network in drugs is vast. It is clever. It moves along our excellent transportation and cargo systems.

It operates across all boundaries, including our national borders.

Interdiction is critical.

But think about this: Drugs are “pushed” on people, that’s correct. But once someone becomes dependent on drugs, they become part of the supply equation.

We can interdict at the drug dealer level, yes. But cutting demand is the best way to cut the supply network – and that speaks to education.

The best education about drugs occurs at the local levels – in your communities, and in families and cohorts of friends.

Cutting demand means teaching children not to fall into the orbit of drugs. Cutting demand also means treating those with substance abuse disorders so that their friends and neighbors – and, their children, or parents – see that light at the end of a dark struggle.

Meanwhile, the nature of the drug threat changes each day.

When our eight-state initiative got started, opioids were far and away the biggest drug scourge.

First, it was prescription opioids. Oxycodone was tops in overdose deaths.

As we waged battles on the prescription drug front and those drugs became somewhat scarce, heroin use jumped to fill the gap.

Since then, methamphetamine has made a comeback.

Now, fentanyl has become the Number One drug involved in drug overdose deaths in the United States, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

All of these drugs remain a scourge. None has gone away.

So, interdiction retains a vital role. We can never stop pursuing dealers and their networks.

Law officers face challenges on the street, not the least of which are the drugs themselves.

Being exposed to fentanyl as you do your job can be deadly.

Those challenges will always be there.

But we also must realize that we cannot “enforce” our way out of this crisis.

The answers are found in working together as professionals.

Education is one clearly positive path.

Another ray of hope has been developing for years in Ohio. It’s our drug courts.

We have more than 240 specialized dockets courts in Ohio and drug courts comprise 150 of them.

These courts work.

But they cannot work where they don’t exist, and we don’t have a sufficient number of them – particularly in our rural areas.

Twenty counties in Ohio have no drug court, and all of them are mostly or entirely rural.

Our governor and legislature is working on changing that, and we in the judiciary support expansion.

Another old misconception about drug abuse is the neighborhood. Some folks think big cities are where drug abuse is most rampant.

But on a per capita basis, the reality is different. Drug abuse is everywhere. It is deeply woven into our rural areas, as all of you know.

Addiction affects us all, it is not confined to one race, one gender, one age group, one education level or one community.

The fact that you are here from many states speaks to a philosophy near and dear to us – here at the Court.

That philosophy is this: We cannot fight this epidemic within the borders of one state.

Our regional and national experience of the past several years has proven that point.

Key to that is sharing. We must share strategies, and new ideas.

Drug courts, in particular, are embracing technologies like videoconferencing, smartphone apps, portable drug testing devices, and many others to deliver treatment services, supervise clients, and train staff.

Collectively, these innovative uses of technology are known as “teleservices.”

Ohio’s Mental Health and Addiction Services is using federal funds from the 21st Century Cures Act to provide “teleservices.”

They also help with Medication-Assisted Treatment.

A reduction in relapse rates significantly improve with FDA-approved medications for opioid use disorders.

I’m glad we have health providers here to work along with the judges and sheriffs to brainstorm and generate ideas.

Over the course of the next three days, you will talk about barriers and innovations in rural communities.

You will learn techniques, on how to engage with members of your community.

You will also have breakout sessions to learn about everything from accessing Naloxone to removing barriers from jails not run by sheriffs.

So use these days to learn, to ask questions, and talk about the hurdles you face.

I hope you walk away from this conference knowing that you are not alone in this fight and certainly not alone in developing strategies to curb drug abuse disorder.

We know you share our commitment to tackling this epidemic.

I’m confident that we have the right people in this room today to make an immediate and meaningful difference.

Thanks for your commitment.

Remember, this is not just a law enforcement problem.

It’s not a just court problem.

It’s a community problem.

Thanks for being here.

God Bless.