Logical Next Step: Drug Policy Reforms

Issue June 2008 By David W. White Jr.

Our work this year on sentencing reform and Criminal Offender Record Information legislation has pointed us to some broader issues, those which lie at the root of so many of our social problems: It is undeniable that drugs and alcohol are invariably strongly related to crime, domestic violence, child abuse and divorce. It is time for the bar to ask how we can break the vicious cycles that perpetuate these problems.

Unfortunately, the response to substance abuse problems that we have at the present time is largely punitive, with incarceration and with the removal of children from families, with placement in foster care. Families break up, parents lose visitation with their children, and all family members suffer.
On top of that, the monetary costs are enormous. Focusing only on incarceration in the state’s jails and prisons, the cost projected for FY 2009 is $1.4 billion. That leaves out the costs of prosecution, defense, DSS, probation, and, importantly, the costs to victims.

The cycle does not end; and people who leave jails and prisons have a high likelihood of re-offending, especially given the limited support they receive while incarcerated, and, so many times, when they are released. Problems can easily be traced to sentencing restrictions, such as mandatory minimum sentences, and to budgetary restraints for programs.

Informal surveys reveal that roughly 80 percent of pre-trial detainees voluntarily report, upon arrival at the jail, that they have addiction problems. The jails have become withdrawal centers, but have limited treatment and rehabilitation facilities for the pre-trial detainees.

There is no lack of good intentions, and there is no lack of good ideas. But sadly, Massachusetts has so far failed to embrace comprehensive reforms that would actually make a difference.
All of this is why we have appointed the MBA Drug Policy Task Force. The task force has met twice now, and the approximately 40 members represent interests from the defense bar, the prosecution, rehabilitation, treatment, the medical society, pharmacists, social workers and others. Appointments to the task force are still in progress. See related article on page 23.

The group has a simple four-part mission: To assess current education and prevention programs; to assess current treatment programs; to examine the sentencing system; and to make policy recommendations. Fortunately, we do not need to re-invent the wheel when it comes to gathering data, though some updating will, of course, be necessary. I am hopeful that the task force will be making bold recommendations before year’s end, so the recommendations can be turned immediately into productive and successful legislation.

You do not need a crystal ball to see that it will all come back to the roots: Better education and prevention, and more effective treatment and rehabilitation will help reduce criminal behavior and the need for expensive incarceration. A new view of addiction as a disease to be prevented or treated, not a crime to be punished, is an important one we must continue to recognize.

Our pages this month are filled with the names of so many of our volunteers. It is amazing how vibrant the MBA is. Our members occupy dozens of committees, all of which are churning out publications, programs and legislation. Others are involved in direct volunteer work with low-income clients, community organizations and other volunteer programs. Thank you, all.

Finally, let me welcome our two newest practice sections. The House of Delegates, as reported this month, authorized the creation of an Immigration Law Section and a Juvenile and Child Welfare Section. Both areas of the law are quite specialized, yet they defied classification into other sections because of the many areas of law they spanned. We look forward to welcoming new members attracted by these additional sections.