After punitive and abstinence-based drug policies of the 1990s failed to deter drug use, some justice systems are turning to “harm reduction”—a public health philosophy that the Vera Institute of Justice calls a set of practical strategies that seeks to reduce the negative consequences associated with drug use. Many harm reduction strategies have been used to address drug use in the community, but they have only recently begun to be implemented in the justice system, Vera says. A new report, “A New Normal: Helping the Criminal Justice System Address Opioid Overdoses,” describes harm reduction strategies, such as syringe exchanges and the distribution of the opioid antidote naloxone. It includes the voices of 14 people from across the political spectrum—from law enforcement, court systems, and corrections departments in New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, and West Virginia—who talk about challenges of implementing harm reduction strategies in the justice system, and the feasibility of their widespread adoption.
“In cities and states across the country, there is a growing appetite for shifting the way we respond to people who use drugs away from strictly punishment and towards more effective, compassionate responses,” said Vera’s Leah Pope, the report’s co-author. The report says obstacles to the widespread adoption of harm reduction strategies include the need to elevate understanding about what harm reduction means and which strategies are viable at different stages of the justice system; deeply held beliefs about the nature of addiction and recovery; and questions about the appropriate role for the criminal justice system in responding to drug use.