January 19, 2022

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Remarks by Katharine T. Sullivan, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the Office of Justice Programs, at the Pennsylvania Roundtable on Mental Health and Addiction

15 min read

Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here today, and it’s such a privilege to join the Second Lady for this conversation.

I want to thank my colleagues in the administration and all of the experts taking part in today’s discussion. And most of all, my thanks to the survivors who were brave enough to tell their stories. Our attorney general would have been very proud to hear how each of you has fought to overcome your addiction. I saw this battle play out many times during my days as a judge, when I ran a drug court, and I know how tough a fight it is. You are all warriors in every sense of the word, and we are all pulling for you.

There are many, many people across our country struggling with addiction and abuse, and too many – far too many, sadly – have lost the fight. Over 700,000 Americans have died of a drug overdose in the last two decades. Attorney General Barr understands the enormity of this crisis. Countless families, and communities of all sizes, have suffered. Bill Barr sees this not just as a public health and public safety emergency – which it certainly is – but as a national tragedy, which is why he is willing to do whatever it takes, to deploy whatever resources are necessary, to bring this tragedy to an end.

This includes more aggressive prosecutions of drug traffickers, broader support of community-based programs and expanded treatment options, including telehealth options in rural communities, that put drug-involved individuals on the road to recovery.

Unfortunately, the first step toward recovery is often a brush with the law. Sometimes, it’s a domestic incident that brings police into contact with a user. Often, it’s an overdose that draws first responders to the scene. The way these encounters are handled can make a huge difference in treatment outcomes. The problem is, police are equipped to enforce the law and restore order – they are generally not trained to respond to a user’s health and mental health needs.

In order to respond comprehensively – keeping the peace while facilitating treatment – it’s crucial that we strengthen the connection between treatment providers and law enforcement.  My agency, the Office of Justice Programs, is investing substantial resources in programs that facilitate these partnerships. We’re also supporting drug and veterans treatment courts that keep drug-involved offenders from falling deeper into the justice system. Research shows that these programs work, and I’ve seen personally the enormous difference they make.

These and other Department of Justice programs are helping us get treatment to people who come into contact with the justice system, including prisoners and jail inmates. Last year, we awarded more than $333 million in grants to tackle drugs and addiction, which was an unprecedented amount of funding. I’m very pleased that we’re continuing those investments this year. In fact, we’re going a little beyond. As we speak, more than $340 million in grant awards are going out the door to communities across the country to combat the addiction crisis.

This includes $29 million to help criminal justice officials and mental health providers meet the needs of people with mental illness. As much as 10 percent of all police calls in the U.S. involve people with a serious mental illness, and a substantial percentage of people in jails have a serious mental illness – and they stay there longer and return more frequently. It’s critical that we address these challenges at the outset and throughout the course of their involvement in the system, and that’s precisely what these new grants will do.

The Department of Justice is the federal government’s largest law enforcement agency, and the attorney general is the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. We believe that people who break the law should be held accountable, but we also believe very strongly that people who are dealing with addiction and mental illness need support. Otherwise, they will continue to be a danger to themselves, to their families and to their communities.

It’s in all our interests that they succeed, which is why we will continue working hard to make sure that treatment and safety are part of a unified response. The Department of Justice is with all of you in this fight, and we will not spare our resources.

Thank you for your time.

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