Drug Defendants Who Relapse Can Be Jailed, Court Says

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The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled unanimously that a judge can require defendants with substance use disorders to remain drug-free as a condition of probation and send them to jail if they relapse, the New York Times reports. The case, which challenged a requirement routinely imposed by judges across the U.S., has been closely watched by prosecutors, drug courts and addiction medicine specialists. For many, it represented a debate over the nature of addiction. The defense argued that addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease that compromises an individual’s ability to abstain. The prosecution maintained that addiction varies in intensity and that many people have the ability to overcome it and can be influenced by penalties and rewards, like incarceration or a cleared criminal record.

While acknowledging the many experts who weighed in on each side, the seven justices declined to take a stance. Instead, they said, the defendant in the case should have raised the issue when her probation condition was first imposed, when it could have been fully argued before a trial judge. Justice David Lowy wrote that a judge has the discretion to determine probation requirements tailored to an individual that further probation’s goals of rehabilitation and public safety. Judges, he said, “stand on the front lines of the opioid epidemic” and are “faced with difficult decisions that are especially unpalatable.” The challenge was filed by Julie Eldred, now 30, who was convicted of stealing jewelry to support her heroin habit. In 2016, a judge gave her a year’s probation. The judge ordered her to begin outpatient treatment and remain drug-free. Soon, she relapsed. When she tested positive for fentanyl, the judge ordered her to go to inpatient treatment, but no placement could immediately be found, so he jailed her.

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