Amid statistical confusion, bill to expand pregnant drug abuse law dies

The Senate Judiciary Committee has killed a bill that would expand a controversial law, approved last session, that allows women to be arrested for harming their newborns through drug abuse during pregnancy, reports The Tennessean. The bill (HB1340), which had already cleared committees in the House, would add methamphetamine to the list of substances that can trigger an arrest when used during pregnancy.

(A) vote on Wednesday against expanding prosecution powers could signal the first step toward repealing the law altogether, said health advocates who say expanding treatment would do more for newborns than putting mothers in jail.

“We feel like people … realize this is not the way to deal with this problem in Tennessee and that we really need to go back to the drawing board,” said Allison Glass, state director of Healthy and Free Tennessee, a nonprofit women’s advocacy group. “The vote signifies that people are really rethinking the punitive way that this law deals with this.”

In a follow-up report Sunday, the newspapers says senators were confused about statistics on how the current law was working.

Within just a few minutes they not only ignored important data that Tennessee actually does collect, but suggested it’s not collected. And they grew agitated about a statistic that doesn’t exist because, when creating a controversial law in 2014, they never assigned anyone to monitor its impact.

…Such drug-dependent births have reached the epidemic level in Tennessee, setting off a flurry of measures to try to reverse the troubling public health trend. In their haste, lawmakers have moved quickly on at-times conflicting approaches.

…Anyone with Internet can find, in seconds, that 188 Tennessee babies this year have shown narcotic drug withdrawal symptoms, known as neonatal abstinence syndrome. That’s ahead of last year’s pace.

The continuing increase could also mean that the threat of jail time hasn’t been much of a deterrent for pregnant women gripped by addiction.

…(N)o one has been counting the number of women arrested (since the new law took effect). The state Department of Safety recently conducted a survey, but the results weren’t around as lawmakers considered giving prosecutors extended powers to charge women not just for narcotics, but for meth.

The Tennessean has identified 28 women charged. But senators got hung up on an anecdotal estimate of nine arrests in Shelby County, with Gardenhire — back again on this issue — concluding that “if only nine, then this has become a pretty good deterrent.”

But numbers can be pesky. Whatever the number of arrests in Shelby County, drug-dependent births there are actually ahead of last year’s pace, when hospitals counted 37 births.

As questions mounted about whether to allow more women to be charged, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis, went on the offensive, challenging a health advocate who had addressed the committee.

She had expressed an “opinion,” he said.

“I heard you give me a narrative,” Tate said. “Are there any numbers?”

It sounds like a bold question — until the answer is, well, yes. And at a time, three months into the session, when a bill’s sponsor might be expected to have these facts close at hand.

Tennessee is on pace for the 14th year in a row of more drug-dependent births. In the last six months of 2014, after prosecutions began, the state counted 57 Tennessee women who left the state to give birth to a drug-dependent newborn. And meth, statewide, has actually been sending fewer children into state custody in recent years.