The high court in Massachusetts may soon weigh in on issues of substance abuse and the criminal-justice system.
In 2016, Julie Eldred was put on probation for theft. Conditions of her probation included remaining drug-free and submitting to random drug tests. Eldred, who says she “was in the midst of active addiction” and “was actively using,” tested positive for the opioid fentanyl only 12 days later. She was sent to jail and released after ten days when her lawyer found her a treatment center.
Eldred’s lawyer, Lisa Newman-Polk, has appealed the case to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, arguing in part that by ordering Eldred to remain drug-free, the conditions of Eldred’s probation have violated her constitutional right not to be punished for a status offense.
Newman-Polk makes the argument that courts should consider new understandings about addiction based on scientific research. “An order to be drug-free is an order that a person with a substance use disorder needs to be in remission or cured of addiction. It’s not practical or reasonable, in view of what we know about the brain science and what we know about addiction[.]”
Those opposing Eldred’s case argue that addiction should not be classified as a brain disease and that a probation condition like “remaining drug-free” can help addicts recover. According to Massachusetts’ Assistant Attorney General Maria Granik, “[t]aking away the ability to impose the condition and to have those consequences and that aspect of accountability available when sentencing someone with substance use disorder can actually have a negative impact[.]”
Some are concerned with what a decision favorable to Eldred might mean. They fear that addiction and compulsion defenses would be “easy to raise and hard to adjudicate.”
Regardless of the decision made in this case, this issue may be addressed by legislation. Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy suggested that we need to look at addiction “[n]ot as a moral failing, but as a chronic illness that must be treated with skill, urgency and compassion.” Further, the surgeon general’s 2016 report called on federal, state, local, and tribal governments to “implement criminal justice reforms to transition to a less punitive and more health-focused approach” because “[l]ess punitive, health-focused initiatives can have a critical impact on long-term outcomes.”
A decision in Eldred’s case is expected by spring.