Legislators push treatment over punishment for people with drug addictions

Massachusetts State House. March 20, 2018.

By Elise Takahama
BU News Service

BOSTON – Jared Owen was in graduate school at MIT when his addiction spiraled out of control. He was drinking every day, taking opioid painkillers and getting hooked on heroin and methamphetamine. In late July 2013, he was sent to jail for 18 months on armed robbery charges.

“I remember having to detox in the basement of the Cambridge police station,” Owen said. “That kind of pain I wouldn’t wish anyone on Earth.”

Nearly six years later, Owen is a spokesman for an addiction recovery organization with a master’s degree from MIT and a healthy 2-year-old son.

Individuals struggling with mental illnesses, including substance misuse, have long been forgotten, Massachusetts lawmakers say. But they are now a focus for legislators who have been working to restructure the state’s criminal justice system over the last few years.ADVERTISING

Last spring, Gov. Charlie Baker signed off on a criminal justice reform package that made sweeping changes, including rethinking high bail amounts, increasing use of diversion programs for veterans and people with mental illnesses, restricting solitary confinement and more.

Now, legislators are continuing to push new ideas forward – especially ones related to greater protections for those struggling with mental and behavioral health.

“(The bill) recognizes that relapse is a part of the illness, and while some people go into treatment and never relapse, that’s not the common experience,” Friedman said. “This acknowledges that this is not an usual course of action and that people shouldn’t be criminalized for relapsing when they’re in treatment trying to address the illness.”

Friedman’s bill would also prevent courts from ordering drug or alcohol testing more than four times per month, which she said was “very disruptive” to people’s lives.

“They can’t have a life, it takes a long time, the hours are inconvenient,” Friedman said. “We’re putting all this burden on people who have an illness and we’re not putting their care first and foremost.”

While people seeking treatment would be able to recover in a system more tolerant of slip-ups, individuals who commit crimes on probation would still be charged, she said.

Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, who’s the co-chair of the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, said one of his constituents was sent back to prison a few months ago after relapsing. It was incredibly disappointing, Eldridge said, and as a result, he’s grateful for Friedman’s bill.

Many politicians agree that the state needs to move away from punishing addictions and toward treatment, Eldridge said, but the Massachusetts judicial system continues to incarcerate those who “fall prey” to substance misuse.

“While our county jails and some state prisons are making progress on drug treatment, the reality is that drug treatment in our prisons is inadequate,” he said. “Those individuals should be placed in residential facilities, not a prison.”

The criminal justice reform caucus has been “really focused,” Eldridge said. Its current goals are to look at the impacts of last spring’s reform package and to advocate for more funding in next year’s budget.

Rep. Jennifer Benson, D-Lunenburg, who’s also a member of the caucus, signed on to support the bill as well.

“Addiction should be treated first as the mental health problem that it is,” Benson’s spokesman Sean Rourke said in a statement. “Incarceration often disrupts treatment programs, further endangering those with addictions and the public. This bill bring compassion to the process, and seeks to end the cycle of relapse among people with addictions caught up in the court system.”

Rep. Tami Gouveia, D-Acton, who serves on the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery, said she thinks the bill is a step in the right direction.

“This has real life and death implications for people,” Gouveia said. “I’m pleased (Sen. Friedman) has taken this very seriously and seen relapse as part of the recovery process. It embraces relapse as part of the disorder.”

Massachusetts lawyer and prison reform advocate Lisa Newman-Polk, who helped work with Friedman’s office on the initial idea for the bill, argued in a recent case against incarcerating those with drug addictions when they relapse.

“If the bill passes, it will prohibit courts from responding punitively to relapse, which is the primary symptom of addiction,” Newman-Polk said. “In general, we have this dichotomy where political leaders and policymakers say that addiction is a health problem and we need to treat it as such, and yet our laws dictate otherwise.

“To recover from any kind of mental health problem, including addiction, people need to experience safety and compassion. It is very difficult to get well in jail where stress and deprivation pervade the environment,” she added.

Owen – who’s now the communications director for the Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery – said legislation like Friedman’s helps move their cause forward.

Boston-based MOAR is very active in pushing for new policies, especially those that end mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, lower probation fees and provide better education and re-entry programs, Owen said. One of the organization’s top priority for fiscal year 2019 is to seek more funding for new recovery and diversion centers, he said.

“With this bill, we’re ultimately trying to move addiction from being a criminal justice issue to a public health issue,” he said. “This bill would basically tell the courts that if someone is engaged in treatment, they should not be incarcerated for a positive drug screening.”

Owen said that while some prisons and jails are attempting to bring mental health treatment into correctional facilities, it’s still not enough to provide inmates with adequate support.

“When I came from incarceration, I seemed like a very broken person,” Owen said. “I couldn’t make eye contact, I couldn’t carry on conversations … Incarceration has this effect of dehumanizing people and making them perceive themselves as worthless or as bad for society.”

This article was previously published in the Sentinel and Enterprise.

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