Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta Gives Remarks at “National Crime Victimization Survey 50th Anniversary Celebration”
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Good morning, everyone! It’s wonderful to join you today at the first COSSUP conference – live and in person – since 2020. It is so energizing, so encouraging, to be in this room full of experts and practitioners from all around the country.
And I want to offer a few thanks to the team who got us here and made it happen:
First, I want to thank Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) Director Karhlton Moore for his outstanding leadership and for his strong commitment to the health and safety of our communities. He has a clear vision for safety and justice that centers on supporting the well-being of every community member. COSSUP is a direct reflection of that philosophy, and I am so appreciative of the tremendous energy he brings to this work. Karhlton is a wonderful colleague and we are so fortunate to have him leading BJA.
Karhlton has an incredible team, and I want to give a big shout out to Tim Jeffries, Betsi Griffith, Ruby Qazilbash and their teams, as well as Mariel Lifshitz in my office. These colleagues bring deep knowledge, expertise and commitment to this work, and they have been tireless in their efforts to center public health as a major goal of the Justice Department’s public safety strategy. Thanks also go to the great efforts of our training and technical assistance partners who worked with BJA to organize the conference and to support COSSUP grantees year-round.
And let me thank all my fellow speakers and presenters. Siobhan [Morse], we are so very grateful to you for sharing your message of hope, and for all you have done to take lessons from your own journey to support others on their path to recovery. Thank you.
Shawn [Ironmaker] and Gregorio [Kishketon], thank you for your eloquent words, and for making us feel the presence of something greater than ourselves. We are honored to have you here today.
And of course, thanks to each and every person in the room here today. There are over 1,200 of you from across the country, all working to address the crises we’re facing related to substance misuse, substance use disorders, overdose and associated social challenges. Your work is essential, it’s inspiring and it’s making a difference in the lives of millions of Americans.
We are proud to support you, and we are calling on you in these difficult times to redouble your commitment to the health and safety of our communities.
This is, of course, a big issue we’re trying to tackle. More than 46 million people in our country have a substance use disorder. Of that number, more than 19 million people over the age of 18 have a co-occurring substance use and mental health disorder. These are our colleagues. They’re our friends and neighbors. They’re people we live with and love.
Substance use and mental health conditions are not uncommon, and yet those who experience these disorders very often don’t get the support they need. The latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health tells us that, astonishingly, about 94% of people with substance use disorders do not receive treatment. Moreover, women and low-income populations and individuals from historically underserved and marginalized communities face distinct inequities in accessing treatment and recovery service.
Without this key support, the path to recovery can be long and lonely. The journey can lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair, even thoughts of suicide or a tragic overdose. And too often, it leads to arrest and time behind bars.
More than half of people in state prisons and almost two-thirds of those held in jails meet the criteria for substance use disorder. These trends are mirrored in the youth context, too. A recent report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that, between 2008 and 2018, 60% of youth in juvenile facilities met the criteria for a substance use disorder. The problem is even worse for certain segments of the population. For instance, almost nine out of 10 American Indian and Alaska Native youth in juvenile facilities meet this criteria.
The criminalization of substance use and mental health disorders is far too pervasive, and unnecessary encounters with the law may cause further trauma and can create lifelong obstacles to success that may feel almost insurmountable.
But we are working hard to change that narrative. You are changing the narrative.
Expanding access to treatment and recovery support services are key pillars of the Department of Justice’s strategic plan, and they are central to our mission at the Office of Justice Programs. We are focusing our resources on meeting the needs of people with substance use and co-occurring mental health disorders at every point along the justice continuum – in the community, during an encounter with law enforcement, within the courts, during the pre-trial process, in the corrections system, through pre- and post-release from incarceration and during an individual’s reintegration back to the community.
We are helping to find ways to get people the services they need in the most supportive environment possible, delivered by the most appropriate and most qualified professionals. This means reimagining our society’s approach to substance use and mental health crises. It means thinking of safety first, of course, but looking for opportunities for deflection and diversion wherever possible, so that individuals can get the help they truly need – ideally without having to enter the justice system.
You know this better than anyone: Communities are strengthened when people are connected to the resources they need to recover, and individuals in recovery are buoyed by engaged communities.
For those who do end up in jail or prison, we’re working to expand access to evidence-based interventions, including medication-assisted treatment and peer-to-peer recovery support. As just noted, people who are incarcerated have a disproportionately high prevalence of substance use disorders, including opioid use disorders, and they are at greater risk of overdose in their first hours and days after release. That’s why we are supporting efforts that incentivize screening and assessment early on in the process. We’re increasing access to treatment behind the walls and ensuring connections in the community upon release.
Through COSSUP, BJA recently opened an opportunity specifically focused on expanding access to OUD treatment options in our nation’s jails. This initiative – which we call Building Bridges – is a partnership with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that will help break down barriers, get people the support they need in jail and make sure that support continues after release.
Along those lines, one of our newest resources is the Guidelines for Managing Substance Withdrawal in Jails, published earlier this year by BJA in collaboration with the National Institute of Corrections. These guidelines were put together by an expert committee of corrections and medical professionals and are grounded in evidence-based practices. These guidelines are an invaluable tool for local government officials, jail administrators, correctional offices and health care professionals to support and protect the people in their care, and to help more individuals take a step toward recovery.
We are also working to educate justice professionals across the system about substance use and mental health conditions, on evidence-based treatment and recovery practices and on the health, social and safety benefits of deflection and diversion. We are promoting prevention and harm reduction and other community partnerships like co-responder and community responder models, law enforcement-behavioral health collaborations and recovery teams, as central to success. Our philosophy is that communities can and should be co-producers of both public safety and public health.
You are key to this work, to changing the narrative, to re-thinking the relationship between justice and behavioral health and to bringing people together to build a more effective recovery infrastructure. You are making our communities safer and healthier, and our country stronger. You are showing that progress, hope and recovery are possible when we give people the tools they need. Thank you for the difference you are making, for your commitment to this life-saving work and to sharing lessons with each other at this national conference.
I am now pleased to invite Karhlton to the podium for remarks and to moderate a panel with the amazing office heads at OJP. We are so fortunate to have their passion, expertise and leadership at the department, and I’m so glad you’ll have the opportunity to hear from them directly about their priorities and resources in this area. We’ll also have the honor of hearing from the department’s third ranking official, Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta.
So, thank you all again for your engagement here at the conference. Karhlton.