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Judge Brian Privett wants to cut down on overdoses, but it starts with our own outlook on drug abuse

By Jonathan Coffman
KyForward reporter

Mistakes lead to consequences. But how do we teach people to avoid making those mistakes?

Circuit Judge Brian Privett of Paris faces this question every day while managing participant treatment in his district drug courts.

Judge Brian Privett

Drug courts are government programs designed to provide assistance in recovery to individuals who have entered the criminal justice system as a result of drug use or drug-related criminal activity. The process is supported by collaborative supervision among judges, specialty court staff, prosecutors, defense counsel, treatment professionals, community agencies and more. Ongoing judicial interaction with each drug court participant is essential to maintaining success during this process.

As a former prosecutor, Privett had a hard-nosed stance on drug abuse, one of the biggest issues facing his community. His approach was to send abusers to jail if they break the recovery agreement made in drug court.

However, Privett’s experience with two drug court graduates, Jessica and Ashley, forced him to change his outlook for good.

After graduating from the program, Jessica relapsed and overdosed. Privett had Ashley arrested after she admitted that they were using drugs at times when they knew they would not be tested. The experience hit home for Privett as he believed that they had made great progress. The situation clearly underlined the need for a new approach and a better solution for participants that return to using drugs after completing the program.

Privett later took an opportunity to publicly apologize to Ashley and emphasize the importance of changing the common outlook on addiction.

Ashley has now been sober for two years. The experience was a turning point for Privett, who describes his regret for how he handled her case as an important lesson in grace.

Judge Privett addresses the Blameless Children event supporting children of those suffering through addiction in Versailles. (Photo provided)

“I took a step back and thought, ‘Okay. I need to listen to people, I need to talk to people,’” Privett said. “The more I listened, the more I realized that punitive measures do not work because you’re not affecting the person’s problems at all. Sitting in prison isn’t going to change a thing, or a person’s brain chemistry when it’s being affected by these drugs.”

Privett was appointed as a Circuit Judge of Bourbon, Scott and Woodford Counties by Governor Matt Bevin in April 2018. He decided to run because he was afraid that a new judge may not have the same passion for the drug court as retiring Judge Paul Isaacs, who first implemented the county drug courts in 2002. Privett now turns to treatment research and facilitating new opportunities for support groups and volunteer work to nudge participants along toward healthier lifestyles.

After learning to change his own outlook on addiction, Privett knew the next step was to help others see things differently as well. In the drug court process, one area of focus is helping participants find work and stay employed. While participants often start their return to work in restaurants, Privett says that it had been common in the past for employers to be scared away by learning that an employee participates in a drug court program.

“Just because someone has been addicted doesn’t mean they’re always going to be an addict. It can turn around,” Privett said. “If they’re clean, you can trust them. They aren’t going to be bad people. In fact, some of the people I’ve worked with in recovery are some of the best people I know.”

As more participants graduate from the program and land on their feet, the negative connotation around drug court participation has started to change. But the statistics around Kentucky drug overdoses paint a grim picture of addiction in the region.

Judge Privett in Court (Photo provided)

According to the Kentucky Office of Drug Policy’s 2018 Overdose Fatality Report, over 1,200 overdose deaths were reported for Kentucky residents last year. While the number of overdose deaths declined for the first time since 2013, the toll remains devastating and among the nation’s top 10 overdose rates last year, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

All but seven of Kentucky’s 120 counties now have drug courts offering help to eligible participants. But while progress is being made, Privett knows that there is a long way to go. In order to make a significant impact on this issue, Privett looks to members of the community to play a role in taking charge of changing mindsets.

There are a number of support groups in any county that provide opportunities to help. Both Bourbon and Kenton County have been progressive on treatment, Privett said, opening a variety of support groups in addition to church-based recovery programs. Those interested in learning how they can help their community can contact their local circuit clerk’s office to ask about volunteer opportunities at their local support groups or drug court.

Privett with community members at the Reach Out Bourbon County picnic. The organization works to bring awareness about addiction, and support addicts, families and children. (Photo provided)

Privett has been active in recruiting unique volunteers from different backgrounds and areas of interest as well. Teachers have offered to teach basic finance skills in the program. People with personal stories have shared their experiences, shedding light on the struggle they or their loved ones faced getting back on their feet. Research shows that there is a high correlation between isolation and recidivism, Privett said, so finding innovative ways to connect people to one another is a high priority.

As volunteers have started sharing their personal stories at speaking events, it has had a positive impact by shifting expectations about what is okay to discuss in public.

“That’s a huge change,” Privett said. “Having a mother who is respected in the community willing to come forward and talk about her daughter’s problems, that’s something people can relate to.”

After facing the worst outcome with Jessica, Privett strives to use the experience to teach others and prevent that result from happening again. His combination of faith and willingness to change has inspired positive outcomes in his community, and Privett hopes that others take notice and change their outlook as well.

“It doesn’t make sense to imprison people for taking drugs if they aren’t being violent,” Privett said. “If they continue to steal from people or cross a line where we need to protect society from them, then that may be beyond the point of working within the program. But the majority of substance abusers can be treated in this program.”

To volunteer for a drug recovery program, call your local circuit clerk’s office and ask about volunteer opportunities at support groups and programs in your area.

Judge Brian Privett discusses his changed perspective on addiction

Video courtesy of Andrew Hager Live

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