Recovery and Probation: Should a Relapse Earn Jail Time? 

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If a person relapses while on probation, should they be sent to jail? A top Massachusetts court tackled this issue last month, unanimously ruling that, yes, a judge can send defendants to jail if they relapse and break the “remain drug-free” condition of probation bestowed on them.   

The case at issue involved defendant Julie Eldred, now 30, who had been convicted of larceny for stealing jewelry to support her heroin habit.  She was given a year’s probation by a trial judge back in August 2016 and faced up to a 30-month sentence if she violated any of her probation’s conditions.

Two of these conditions were to begin outpatient treatment and remain drug-free. Though Eldred enrolled in a program and began taking Suboxone to treat her withdrawal symptoms, she tested positive for fentanyl 11 days into her probation. The judge ordered her to go to inpatient treatment, but no placement could immediately be found.

Prison as an Alternative to Treatment

As a result, “The judge was faced with either releasing the defendant and risking that she would suffer an overdose and die, or holding her in custody until a placement at an inpatient treatment facility became available,” Justice Lowy wrote in his decision.

Eldred ended up spending 10 days in a medium-security prison while she waited for an open bed at a treatment facility. Suboxone was never prescribed while she went through withdrawal.   

Though the prosecution and defense believed the justices had the opportunity to debate the nature of addiction itself, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declined to take a stance on the issue.  Instead, they questioned the timing of the appeal, stating that Eldred should have raised the issue when her probation condition was first imposed, when it could have been fully argued before a trial judge.   

Still, the defense felt the decision was a “massive blow” and that it missed an opportunity to incorporate mainstream medical opinion about addiction – namely, that it is a chronic, relapsing brain disease that compromises an individual’s ability to abstain.  Lisa Newman-Polk, one of Eldred’s lawyers, said through its decision, the court had “rubber-stamped the status quo, dysfunctional way in which our criminal justice system treats people suffering from addiction.” 

Criminalization is Not The Answer

As someone who’s been in the prison system and lived amongst hundreds of women struggling with addictions, I agree.  Incarceration is focused primarily on punishment, rather than rehabilitation, and is a dysfunctional solution to dealing with addicted individuals. All it does is force abstinence for a period of time, not address the root cause of the behavior that causes these people to use in the first place. As a result, many go right back to the same environment, the same group of friends and the same drugs the minute after they’re released. It doesn’t matter if harsher punishments are imposed upon someone to not use — the lure of addiction is so much stronger.   

In short, criminalization is not the answer for those struggling with addictions, and there have to be better alternatives than sticking them behind bars.   

Additional Reading: Your Loved One is Gone: How to Handle the People Left Behind

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