Our country is fragmented in sharp pieces. Everywhere and every day you hear of another atrocious act being committed, another derisive tweet sent out, and people all over our huge country getting more and more angry and submitting to their fears. What you don’t get to hear in your day-to-day is the work that seems miraculous in the face of cynical adversity.

I had the great fortune to see change be enacted and be a part of its solution. I was offered the opportunity to be a part of two Expert Panel workshops on two opposite sides of the legal spectrum. Being a recent employee of PRA, I have never been to workshops like these before, and I can honestly say that I was blown away by the solutions being proposed and the reminders of where we currently stand. The first Expert Panel was on finding ways to more effectively implement Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) around the United States from the perspective and voices of law enforcement (Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police), prosecutors, probation/parole departments, treatment providers, and judges.

The second Expert Panel was composed of individuals with lived experience who become Certified Peer Specialists and individuals who have worked in peer support for decades. The panel sought to develop a curriculum to certify more Certified Forensic Peer Specialists to assist people who have histories of criminal justice involvement, histories with substance use disorders, and/or histories with mental illness. Many of these people have histories with all three.

What was discussed at these panels was, largely, a tangle of red tape, internal and external misunderstandings in both the behavioral health and criminal justice systems, and barriers that keep people incarcerated and prevent millions from recovering from, often, lifetimes of trauma. What was particularly amazing to me, was the degree of dedication and willingness by all members of both panels to be vulnerable to effectively open dialogue and begin changing the way they do work. All of that, in the hopes of successfully integrating their ideologies and lived experiences into the work of law enforcement officials and certified peer specialists. Specifically, to also get those two positions working in conjunction to truly tackle the problem we’re facing as a country: an overabundance of incarcerated individuals who do not need to be incarcerated.

Similarly, there was a call from both Expert Panel groups for more of this dedication and courage—a call for champions. Champions from both systems and more, as change becomes fluid. A champion, as they defined, is a person who understands a specific system thoroughly, has done some cross-system work, is willing to use their position to leverage change in and out of their organization, and advocate for policy changes locally and statewide (as possible).

Though these groups were composed of individuals from opposite sides of the legal sphere, I found it fascinating that they had many of the same points, just from different perspectives.  Based on their individual experience of whatever brought them to the table, such as their lived experience as a person with a history of criminal justice involvement or their career that brought them to the front line of an epidemic of drug use and incarceration, they each stated they need more people doing the work their peers do. They also need each other. The team of law enforcement officials and prosecutors I was able to discuss MAT with couldn’t state more clearly the need for more peer specialists (or recovery coaches or peer mentors). Likewise, the peer specialists from the other panel couldn’t state more clearly the need for the criminal justice system to understand their important role and accept their presence as a positive factor in criminal justice settings.

In addition, both groups called on other systems that were not sitting at the table to join them. Systems like behavioral health, public assistance systems, convoluted insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and the larger medical health system that has decided, for some reason that behavioral health is different from medical health, as if a person’s brain isn’t attached to their body. What I took away from these panels is that, in order for full recovery of an individual to spread outwards to macro-level change, we need everyone to sit at the table, discuss their perspectives and share their resources. We can no longer stay isolated in silos that prevent us from solving a problem. You can’t make a sphere with two right angles. In order to get this ball rolling, we need people from all sides and in between.

I couldn’t be more thankful to the people I was fortunate enough to meet and hear the important work they do to combat so many issues that culminate into a term of incarceration. As a person who has worked through the complex weave of both systems in both a personal and professional capacity, I admire your work, your dedication, and your courage to be the change we all wish to see in the world. Thank you for letting me sit in on one of the most important conversations I’ve sat in on for years. I genuinely look forward to seeing the change you’ve started progress.