Since the age of 14, Jyssica Noble’s primary motivation has resulted in an overwhelming set of circumstances: she experienced periods of homelessness; she struggled to find work; she lost her son to foster care after police raided her hotel room; she served several stints in jail.
For the majority of Americans, Jyssica is just one of the many people who has fallen victim to the opioid epidemic. For Jyssica, now 26, each year consumed by her addiction is a painful symbol of life lost.
“That’s the biggest thing heroin takes away from you: time,” Jyssica shared with me recently. She and I, along with North Dakota First Lady Kathryn Burgum, sat down together as part of Face to Face, an initiative led by the National Reentry Resource Center and The Council of State Governments Justice Center, which gives policymakers opportunities to hear directly from people who have firsthand experience with the criminal justice system.
Following a 2017 arrest that resulted in a felony theft charge and a probation sentence, Jyssica was referred to Free Through Recovery, a statewide behavioral health program launched earlier this year that links people on probation and parole with community-based recovery support services, including counseling, peer support and access to employment and housing opportunities. Thanks to a team that includes her probation officer, a peer support specialist and counselors at one of our state’s many local Free Through Recovery providers, Jyssica now has a built-in support system that helps her stay on a path to recovery.
Listening to Jyssica’s story in person and learning directly about her experiences, her challenges and her hopes and dreams, further opened my eyes to the devastating impact of substance addiction and helped illustrate what state policies can do on an individual level.
In North Dakota, as is the case in many rural states, the disease of substance addiction is the most urgent social issue. More than 80 percent of people in North Dakota’s prisons have a substance addiction, and half of all arrests in the state are substance-related. Recognizing the severity of the problem, we’ve designated behavioral health and addiction as one of our administration’s five strategic initiatives.
Even after they are released, people like Jyssica often find themselves back behind bars due to the lack of treatment options available to them – a damaging cycle that takes a toll on individuals, their families and the system at large.
To address this far-reaching problem, a bipartisan group of state and local leaders, law enforcement officials, behavioral health specialists and other community leaders came together to take on Justice Reinvestment, a data-driven approach that identifies evidence-based policy solutions designed to create a more efficient and effective criminal justice system.
These efforts resulted in two pieces of Justice Reinvestment legislation that our state legislature approved and I signed into law last year, one of which created the program that supports Jyssica’s recovery. The new measures empowered our state to buck the traditional response of incarcerating people with behavioral health needs and instead direct resources toward implementing innovative, local solutions that will increase access to high-quality treatment. Our executive budget proposal for the 2019-21 bienniuim recommends increasing funding for Free Through Recovery by nearly 65 percent to expand the program to those beyond the criminal justice system. There’s far more work to be done in North Dakota, but Jyssica’s experience shows that we’re on the right track.
Toward the end of our conversation, Jyssica proudly told me that she has an apartment of her own for the first time, works a full-time job and is excited about her future with her son – a relationship that seemed almost impossible during the height of her struggle with addiction.
Governors and other policymakers in all states should get to know the faces of the opioid epidemic in their state’s criminal justice system. With commitment to programs like Free Through Recovery, we can continue to build a criminal justice system that opens minds to rehabilitation and opens doors to recovery.