INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – Indiana needs to take act to avoid creating a “justice by geography” criminal court system, the chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court tells I-Team 8 in an exclusive interview.
The interview follows an extraordinary dissenting opinion issued in December by Chief Justice Loretta Rush in the case of Joseph Kellams.
The Indiana Supreme Court declined to shorten the 16-year maximum sentence Kellams received in a drug-related case.
Kellams’ journey to addiction began with a dirt bike accident as a teenager. What followed was a prescription for painkillers that left him hooked and turning to meth when the prescription ran out.
Chief Justice Rush wrote his case was “a rare and exceptional one, but one that also shows how counties across Indiana treat addiction differently.”
Rush sat down for an exclusive interview with I-Team 8 to discuss her opinion.
She wrote in the opinion: “This case highlights the disparity among Indiana counties in respect to meaningful sentencing alternatives for those suffering from substance disorder.”
I-Team 8 asked Rush to expand on that.
“We have 148 problem-solving courts in different counties,” Rush told I-Team 8. “But we have whole areas that don’t have them and so what I don’t want to see is justice by geography. If you live in a county that has a problem-solving court, you are able to work the program with a lot of oversight and accountability through meetings and drug testing, keep your job, stay with your family, and contribute to your community. If we feel that doesn’t, it could be 5, 10, 15 years in jail.”
The geography includes 58 counties that have one designated drug court. Kellams was arrested in Orange County, one of 34 Indiana counties that don’t have a designated drug court. The chief justice wants those numbers to change.
“You have to have accountability for the criminal behavior that’s there. Methamphetamine is the No. 1 drug we are seeing right now in courts in Indiana and it is ravaging families, communities.” Rush told I-Team 8. “Everybody knows somebody or a family member or somebody that started off with a sports injury in high school. I just met with the state champion baseball team. You start with a sports injury prescribed medication. That’s done and then you get addicted and you turn to other drugs.”
In the December opinion, which was also signed by Justice Christopher Goff, Rush also wrote, “It is no secret that addiction often leads individuals to engage in criminal behavior. As a result, the criminal justice system has become the largest referral source for substance use disorder treatment aside from self-referral.”
Rush says drug use and addiction have led to the state’s highest incarceration rate and one of the highest rates of foster care in the country.
Using drug courts as alternatives does not mean eliminating punishment for those who commit drug-related crimes.
“At the same time, there is no question that methamphetamine exacts a devastating toll on individuals, families, and our communities,” Rush wrote. “And Kellams exacerbated that toll by choosing to deal methamphetamine. This serious offense requires a commensurate sentence.”
I-Team 8 noted that there are the people who have become addicts, there are innocent victims, there are the people who live next door to the drug dealers, there are families with sons or daughters who became addicts because of this disparity. I-Team 8 asked the chief justice what the state’s highest court says to those people.
“Our job is too not overlook the crime. There has to be consequences in regard to the criminal behavior and there is going to be just punishments given to the criminal behavior,” Rush said. “You have a person that is an addict. You treat addiction as a disease — it is a treatable disease — and punish the criminal behavior. That is a tough balance sometimes but there are victims, you know, there are a lot of victims. Somebody got dealt that first methamphetamine. We have to deal with the dealers.”
In 2018, Rush was named co-chair of the National Judicial Opioid Task Force. The task force addressed how the judicial system affects change.
One of the issues in Indiana’s “justice by geography” is funding, which is controlled by the Indiana General Assembly. Will state lawmakers have to bring the change?
“I think it will have to be and also, for smaller communities, you are going to see counties band together because they might not have the resources to have one, so a big push for me with the General Assembly this year is to fund the drug courts instead of funding the tail end, which is long periods of incarceration,” Rush said. “Doing the front end, we have about 4,000 participants in problem-solving courts a year and that is growing and that is 4,000 lives saved.”