Should Relapsing Addicts Be Jailed? MA Court to Rule

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is considering whether it is cruel and unusual punishment to jail relapsed addicts who test positive for drugs while on probation.

Should an addict’s relapse be punished with a criminal sanction? The case of Julie Eldred has put that question before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, in a dispute that may have widespread ripples, as hundreds of thousands of addicted people enter the criminal justice system, the New York Times reports. Remaining drug-free is an almost universal requirement of probation. Violating it can bring sanctions ranging from a warning to, frequently, jail. A judge ordered Eldred to a medium-security prison until her lawyer could find her residential treatment. During the 10 days she spent there, she did not receive any drug counseling, much less Suboxone.

The justices are wrestling with whether the condition of her probation to remain drug free amounts to cruel and unusual punishment for an offender with a substance use disorder. The justices must weigh competing scientific studies. Is addiction a brain disease that interferes with one’s capacity to abstain? Or is it a condition, rather than a disease, that is responsive to penalties and rewards? Law enforcement officials argue that the threat of jail protects not only offenders but society from potentially more drug-related crimes. Many addiction specialists say that the criminal justice system is the most blunt and clumsy of instruments for addressing a public health disaster. Says Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, “We’re punishing someone who has a disease. Yet we don’t want to create an exemption from punishment for people who commit crimes when they are addicts.” Some observers say the courts may be taking the issue more seriously because contemporary offenders tend to be, like Eldred, white, while crack defendants were overwhelmingly black. Having misused drugs since she was 15 years old, Eldred argues that she was incapable of stopping abruptly.