Examining Kentucky’s pilot program to treat non-violent offenders with behavioral health issues

The Commonwealth of Kentucky is taking lessons learned from its judicial substance abuse treatment program to help offenders with behavioral health issues.  On July 25, 2023, East Tennessee State University’s Center for Rural Health Research, housed in the College of Public Health, invited Judge Kevin Mullins to speak about the program.  Kentucky Senate Bill 90 created a pilot program to divert some qualifying low-level offenders away from jail and into treatment for substance use disorder or mental health issues.

The Letcher County District Judge helped create the Community Liaison Program which helps non-violent offenders obtain inpatient treatment for substance use disorders.  The program promotes early identification and linkage to treatment services while working collaboratively with community partners.  The Community Liaison Program has assisted 7,642 (2020-2021) in obtaining inpatient treatment for substance use disorders. Mullins said offering treatment to people with minor offenses has helped reduce recidivism.

“One thing I think everybody agrees on is, no one likes the concept of the revolving jail,” said Mullins. “I became a judge in 2009, after just being a prosecutor, and I realized sending people to prison didn’t work. People that I would send to prison early on in the court system, were already going back to prison. When I became judge, I tried to keep in mind that the people of Letcher County elected me to do what was right. So, I thought what was right was to start by trying to send people to treatment.”

The Kentucky legislature passed Senate Bill 90 in 2022.  The bill created a pilot program in ten counties, that requires a mental health and substance use disorder assessment for low-level offenders.  Charges against the offender are deferred, and once the offender successfully completes the program the charges are dismissed.  Letcher County rolled out the Behavioral Health Conditional Dismissal program in January, the first county in the Commonwealth to do so.  As of mid-June, more than 100 people have taken part in the program in Letcher County.

“One of the things you realize the longer you're in a profession, the more you have to learn from folks outside the profession,” said Dr. Randy Wykoff, Dean of the College of Public Health. “If we are going make any progress in any of the issues we deal with in public health, we have to listen to folks like Judge Mullins.” 

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