Irey Vaughan discusses how opioid crisis is impacting criminal justice system

In her work with female inmates in a re-entry program at Washington County Correctional Facility, Diana Irey Vaughan encounters quite a few eye-opening facts and figures.

Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey Vaughan speaks to members of McMurray Rotary Club in Peters Township Tuesday. Photo:Harry Funk / The Almanac

McMURRAY – In her work with female inmates in a re-entry program at Washington County Correctional Facility, Diana Irey Vaughan encounters quite a few eye-opening facts and figures, which translate to dollars and cents.

Consider one woman’s case:

“At 31 years of age, we’ve already spent $182,608 just from the county into her life,” Irey Vaughan said. “That’s how much we’d spent between court costs, incarcerations, and her children in our children and youth system, in a short period of time.”

The 20-year Washington County commissioner presented a relatively grim picture, with some rays of hope, during a talk last week for Peters Township’s McMurray Rotary Club addressing the correlation between drug use and crime, and the resulting drain on resources.

The example she gave of one inmate’s cost to the county is by no means unique. Another had been responsible for an outlay of $216,000 by age 39, Irey Vaughan reported, attributing the woman’s situation in part to severe trauma she suffered as a teen that later went undetected as she went through the correctional system.

“No one thought: OK, isn’t this the woman who years ago was in intensive therapy for so long, who had a horrible tragedy in her life?” Irey Vaughan said. “We’ve got to start approaching corrections better, because we’re going to be spending money on these individuals, regardless. So wouldn’t it be better to spend money to get them to be productive citizens? We’re going to spend less money in the long run, and we’re going to reduce crime.”

Speaking which, she provided this figure by way of the Washington County district attorney’s office: almost 75 percent of criminal case filings in the county involve the use of drugs, including alcohol.

Meanwhile, individuals who participate in appropriate residential treatment facility programs were associated with a reduction in crime-related expenses of more than 75 percent in 2016, according to Downtown Pittsburgh-based Community Care Behavioral Health Organization.

A disconnect seems to exist, though, in the definition of “appropriate.” In Irey Vaughan’s opinion, treatments that last two weeks or a month fail to meet the criterion.

“You need to get people to change their habits and change their lives, so you’re looking at a minimum of six months of treatment,” she said. “They didn’t become this way overnight. They’ve taken a series of steps down a different path than you and I are on, so they’re going to have to take a series of steps to go in a different direction. It’s going to take some time, and it’s going to take a lot of resources.”

Not all the burden is falling on taxpayers, though.

The county, for example, has received a grant for a pilot program involving Vivitrol, a prescription injectable medicine used to prevent relapse to opioid dependence after detoxification, to be administered to inmates prior to release.

“The Vivitrol shot has been proved to reduce cravings for substances, and then it changes the chemical reactions in the brain,” Irey Vaughan explained. “So if they would leave the jail and use, they’re not going to experience that euphoric feeling.”

Another funded program addresses women’s health and reproductive issues, with one goal being to help mitigate this situation reported at Washington Hospital.

“Eleven percent of the children delivered are in clinical active dependency,” Irey Vaughan said. “But when you talk to the doctors who work in the maternity ward, they will tell you it’s one in four. The mother has disclosed the child has some symptoms, but they don’t rise to the clinical dependency threshold. What chance does that child have?”

She continues to work toward finding some answers.

“We need to start recognizing that this is really changing the fabric of our society,” she said, “and we need to start finding ways to address what’s happening in a significant manner.”