• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Treating addiction instead of putting a person in jail


If someone has addiction problems, Woodford Circuit Judge Brian Privett says throwing that person in jail is a waste of time. The underlying drug or alcohol problems that led them to break the law are not being addressed by sitting in jail, he explained. “They get out with the same addiction problems and that’s not doing anybody any good,” Privett said during an hour-long interview with the Sun. He said if there’s restitution owed to the victim of a crime, a drug-addicted person isn’t likely to pay – and people abusing drugs continue dying of overdoses. “The way that we’ve done things for so many years, I think most people realize they haven’t worked because our prisons and jails are overcrowded, (and) it’s extremely expensive” to keep someone incarcerated, said Privett, 45. Because many are released from prison before finishing a sentence, he said, “The Department of Corrections is not looking out for our communities. If you want to be tough on crime, you keep them where you can see them and you can control their movements. “… If I probate them, I put them on really strict restrictions locally and I see them frequently, because I want to know if they are messing up. I can control them within the local jails, because as soon as you lose them to the Department of Corrections there’s no local control of those people at all. So they can get out tomorrow. They can get out whenever.” Privitt said his mindset of looking for alternatives to jail and prison for those with a drug addiction began while he was a prosecuting attorney for eight years in Harrison and then in Bourbon, Scott and Woodford counties. People guilty of methamphetamine and cocaine possession were regularly given jail time in the years before heroin hit the streets, and changed everything, Privitt said. He remembered being dumbfounded when a man was found in the Harrison County Walmart parking lot passed out in a car with a needle in his arm. “We thought it was an anomaly at first,” he said of the heroin overdose. “… And then it just blew up. Everybody had it, and then people started dying of overdoses.” He recalled two weeks somewhere around 2014 or 2015 when there were eight overdose deaths in Harrison County alone. Watching Harrison County District Judge Charles W. “Bill” Kuster Jr.’s methods in court – his frequent reviews with defendants who were guilty of drug possession and sending them to court-ordered treatment – and becoming more aware of Circuit Judge Paul Isaacs’ Drug Courts in Bourbon, Scott and Woodford counties compelled Privitt to change his focus. “I was making money … but I hated it,” said Privett of his private practice in Paris. He disliked monetizing someone’s problem. “So I … threw myself straight into working on the criminal stuff and pushed out the private stuff,” he explained. Because of his involvement in getting Harrison County’s district Drug Court started, Privett said he “threw his hat in the ring” to succeed retiring District Judge Vanessa Dickson. He wanted to take what she’d accomplished with Woodford County’s district Drug Court pilot program and spread those efforts into Bourbon and Scott counties, he explained. Instead, “an incredible opportunity” arose to succeed the retiring Isaacs as circuit judge, and Privett said he could not pass up a chance to modernize and improve the 14th Judicial Circuit’s Drug Courts. With his appointment by Gov. Matt Bevin in April 2018, the new circuit judge was given an opportunity to “lead all of the recovery efforts in the courts,” he said Privett said this judicial circuit’s Drug Courts are now on the frontline of using the latest research-based practices to get the best outcomes for its participants. “It’s a treatment court. It’s not punitive,” he said of Drug Court. “So you don’t get a lot of jail time in Drug Court.” Privett said jail sanctions are infrequent and limited to three to five days because research shows there are diminishing returns on a person’s recovery with longer jail times. “So they actually start giving up,” he said. “So we don’t put people in jail where they’re just sitting there and not working on their recovery,” he added. “What we do is early interventions – as soon as they have a slip up …” He said interventions include individual and group counseling as well as intensive outpatient treatment. “We steer them into treatment early to try to fix the problem,” said Privett. “If that doesn’t fix the problem then we send them to inpatient treatment.” He said people with substance abuse disorders do a lot of things others see as a criminal act. They lie. They cheat. They steal. They run. And that’s caused by an inability to understand the consequences of their actions because they are so focused on a need to use a drug, he said. “What you have to do is keep them sober enough, keep them away from the drug long enough so their brain starts to rewire itself …,” said Privett. Overcoming the underlying issues that caused the drug abuse and chemical changes to occur in their brains takes time. “From quitting drugs to complete recovery is about five years,” he said. Drug Court’s “high risk, high needs” participants are given a structure of support to help them so they don’t continue their addictive behaviors, said Privett. Of about 60 participants in Bourbon, Scott and Woodford counties, he said 10 to 15 are receiving inpatient treatment because “it’s what they need.” He said beds in short-term impatient treatment facilities (28 to 90 days) are readily available. He also acknowledged year-long treatment beds are far less available. “Drug Court is harder than jail,” said Privett. Participants are in front of him twice a month, drug tested three times a week and required to attend support meetings as well as individual meetings, he said. With the help of grant awards, his recent appointment to the Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative (RJOI) and by staying active in grassroots community support groups like R.A.W. in Woodford County, Privitt said Drug Court can continue providing tools to help prevent participants from relapsing and committing more crimes. “Sending somebody to jail is a temporary situation that doesn’t do anybody any good,” said Privitt. He said when somebody gets sober they become productive, tax-paying citizens, and better parents. And those who come out of recovery “want to help other people,” he said. “So … the benefits are huge.” Privitt, who noted that about 90 percent of the cases in criminal court are drug-related, said he views his job as doing what’s fair – “not just (for) the general public, but (for) the victims and defendants as well. Everybody has a right to what’s fair.” He credits his faith-based compassion for allowing him to make “a lot better decision” for everyone. A native of Corbin, Privitt remembers weekend trips in his mom’s “sun yellow Chevette” – she was a social worker – to deliver government commodities to families in rural Whitley County. Privitt didn’t start attending Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law until he was 28 years old, he said. He wanted to be a small-town attorney, but eventually found himself wanting to make a difference by helping people with drug addictions in criminal court. Before being appointed and then elected a judge in the 14th Circuit, Privett said he prosecuted abuse cases – physical and sexual – in Bourbon and Harrison counties. He also worked with a multi-disciplinary team focused on helping victims of abuse in Bourbon County. “It’s incredibly emotionally difficult,” said Privett of child abuse cases. “I wasn’t the first-responder, I wasn’t the social worker or police officer who was talking to these kids, but I still can remember images from (case) files … that will never leave me.” Privett and his wife of 17 years, Dawn, have two daughters, Mabel, 13, and Eleanor, 10. They live in Paris.

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