For many in southern Ohio, existing drug war interventions can do more harm than good
By Jack Shuler
I pick up Billy McCall from his mother’s apartment at 6:30 a.m. Billy has to be at the Pike County Courthouse, in Waverly, Ohio, by 8:30. It’s less than two hours south of his hometown of Newark, so we should make it. He’s going there to deal with an “abuse of harmful intoxicants” charge from when he overdosed while in treatment in August 2014, just weeks after his girlfriend had died of an overdose. But that was four years ago, and Billy’s life has moved on in fits and starts.
Now it’s 2018, and Billy has already been down to Waverly twice this year, only to have his appearance rescheduled each time. He’s growing weary of this legal dance. But today he’s hopeful. Despite his legal and health struggles, Billy has started a lucrative house-painting business, with contracts around central Ohio and two employees, and he’s become an advocate for harm reduction services in his community.
The drug war usually evokes images of spectacular drug busts and people incarcerated for years for seemingly petty violations. It often is. But more often than not, the drug war is a mother who has to find childcare while she attends court-mandated meetings; a parent trying to help their kid pay off mounting fines; or a guy like Billy McCall, absent from work.
By 8:30 we’re outside the courthouse, waiting in a line. Folks begin to file through metal detectors and into the courthouse lobby, where there are rows of folding chairs for those waiting to hear their names called. The demographics of the room lean white and working class, with people who seem to be on their way to work—lots of Carhartt clothing, muddy boots, and sneakers with paint stains, just like Billy’s. Lots of people who look like they have been living hard. As if on cue, Billy scans the room and remarks, “Lots of people in here are dealing with the same things.”
At first there are no available seats. Then some open up. For an hour we sit. Waiting. Staring at our phones. Staring ahead. Staring out the windows. A man in a red polo walks out into the lobby, takes down the clock on the wall and sets it an hour back—it is the Monday after daylight saving time ended. He reaches up, puts the clock back in place, and retreats. The only thing that signals we are in a courthouse is the stack of docket books and a woman behind the counter who answers the phone by saying “Pike County Courthouse.”
“This place looks like an old Walmart,” I say to Billy.
A woman chatting with a man wearing a cowboy hat pipes in: “Used to be a Kmart!”
“I stand corrected,” I say, and we all laugh.
“But they still have the blue-light special,” Billy jokes.
As of 2017 (the latest year for which official numbers are available), there were roughly 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States—almost half a million of them for drug offenses. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, nearly two hundred thousand are being held in state prisons for drug charges; in jails there are 118,000 not convicted and thirty-five thousand convicted; and in federal prisons there are eighty-one thousand convicted and sixteen thousand with marshals. These numbers do not include those who committed crimes to support drug use or other drug-related crimes.
Police, prosecutors, and judges spend a lot of time and resources punishing people for drug possession—over a million people arrested every year. These kinds of arrests disrupt low-income communities and communities of color especially, making lives more complicated, causing people to miss work, and causing families to lose mothers, fathers, and siblings. Felony convictions create even more complications.
Billy tells me that he’s tired of the way “the disease of addiction,” as he puts it, is criminalized. “The way we’re doing things now is cultivating addiction, not addressing it.” He looks anxiously at his phone. “Not too many nice days left before snow comes.” He looks around the room and says, “All this hurts the community.”
Billy’s life since I first met him underscores this—he rolls a rock uphill, only to have it roll back down again. After treatment, as part of his probation, Billy had to go to “day reporting,” a program for adults on probation that requires attending a Monday–Friday, nine-to-five program rather than having weekly check-ins with probation officers. Like drug courts, day reporting is a holistic approach, an alternative to traditional probation that offers a packed schedule of GED, parenting, mental health, trauma awareness, art, writing, and recovery classes. Licking County’s day reporting program began in November 2017.
The research findings on these programs are mixed. A study of day reporting in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania found that the program saved the county money and that participants had lower recidivism rates than those in traditional programs. The study also found that the program was most effective for high- to medium-risk participants. A study in New Jersey, however, found that participants in a day reporting program there were more likely to be arrested and convicted than the control group.
Billy saw the program as just another step toward moving on with his life—it was also an opportunity to talk to people about harm reduction and necessary policy changes. When he graduated from the program—always a festive event to which those graduating invite friends and family—that’s just what he talked about: the work he has been doing with Harm Reduction Ohio and how that gives him meaning. He also talked about learning to appreciate the daily rituals of life. How his son let him get up with his granddaughter recently, how he fed her and enjoyed being with her. He has, he said, been practicing patience.
Day reporting, like drug court, is an intervention, a creative response by overburdened people in the criminal justice system. But these are both criminal justice responses to a health crisis.
The system is broken: judges, cops, social workers, probation and parole officers are all being asked to deal with the overdose crisis when the problem is bigger than them. Even when we offer some measure of what is considered harm reduction, like first response teams, they are still too connected to the criminal justice system—like having a police escort for social workers. We do more harm than good. If we seriously want to reform policing, we have to end the war on drugs and channel that money into programs that support harm reduction, housing, jobs, and research-based treatment.
The day Billy spent at the Pike County Courthouse was a day not spent seeking counseling to help him deal with the trauma he has experienced, a day not spent doing a job that gives him hope and helps him build a future. Instead, he is sitting in this dinky waiting room.
His experience is the norm rather than the exception; it is the consequence of policy on the daily rituals of mostly poor and working-class people. Billy is waiting here to find out what will become of charges that could result in jail time, maybe more probation, and certainly a fine.
At 11:00 a.m., Billy becomes justifiably frustrated. He still hasn’t been called to appear. He walks up to the desk to ask if the public defender is around. The man with the red polo shirt says he will check. Billy sits back down and tells me about a guy he met while in treatment here in Waverly. He looks him up on Facebook and discovers that he has since overdosed and died.
Billy says this wait is nothing. One time he came here for a drug test that came out positive and was arrested on the spot. They transported him to a holding cell where he waited for about nine hours before being loaded into a van. The van drove all over the state—to Circleville, just up the road in Pickaway County, then farther west to Montgomery County, ending up in Butler County—all because there wasn’t enough room in the Pike County jail. The whole while, he had no idea where they were taking him. He was hungry, tired, and wanted to get well. When he got off the van in Butler, he was finally given something to eat. It was six in the morning.
The waiting room thins out. Some people give up. “I gotta get to work,” the man in the cowboy hat says as he limps out. It’s 11:30 a.m. “How do you plan a life around this stuff?” Billy asks out loud. He goes outside to smoke a cigarette and make a contingency plan with his coworkers. An hour later, Billy is rescheduled. He never entered a courtroom. He never saw a judge.
On our drive back from Pike County, Billy and I talk about the future and he says that at this point in life, he just wants to run his painting business and be proud of it. He says there was a time when he strived for other things, but now he wants to appreciate where he is and what he’s doing.
A few months and two unproductive trips later, Billy was able to settle the matter in Pike County, paying a fine of $250. ■
Excerpted from This is Ohio: The Overdose Crisis and the Front Lines of a New America (Counterpoint, 2020).
Jack Shuler is the author of three books, including The Thirteenth Turn: A History of the Noose. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, Pacific Standard, Christian Science Monitor, 100 Days in Appalachia, and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. He is chair of the narrative journalism program at Denison University. He lives in Ohio. Find out more at jackshulerauthor.com.
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