Lawmakers emphasize treatment over punishment for substance abuse

March 14, 2014

Though popular opinion has shifted away in recent years from the vilification of drug addictions as voluntary destructive choices, it can still be difficult for those in search of help to find the avenues that support treatment. Sometimes, it can be difficult to find a compassionate friend to hear your story, while other times more immediate forms of aid such as rehab centers can be cost prohibitive to those without insurance.

While that may be the case in places like Massachusetts, legislators in the Bay State are making progress in diminishing the government apparatuses that automatically punish drug users for their crimes rather than providing them with the treatment their conditions need. Despite a shortage of facilities outside of the penal system and troubles with non-cooperative insurance companies, the fight to provide drug users with adequate treatment is not one easily lost in Massachusetts.

Bipartisan agreement on increased treatment options

Even at the state level, government can be a divisive system, but lawmakers in Massachusetts are in agreement that the state needs to provide more treatment options from hospitals and detox centers for offenders of drug crimes rather than automatic punishments from the courts. WBUR reported on a bill being voted through various bodies of the state government that would establish three separate commissions to investigate the impact of increased drug treatment responserather than the incarceration of offenders.

Sen. Jen Flanagan told WBUR that drug abuse should not be treated differently than any other medical condition.

We treat someone who has a cardiac problem due to a lifetime of unhealthy habits better than we treat someone who has an addiction problem and it could have started from something as simple as a back surgery,” Flanagan said.

Flanagan was not alone in her sentiments.

“We have to address this,” Rep. Elizabeth Malia told WBUR. “It’s a public health emergency, so we need some better treatment long-term.”

If the committees progress according to plan and Flanagan and Malia get the votes they seek, Massachusetts would establish more beds for detox centers and clinical stabilization services, as well as more lenient practices by courts to try offenders in light of treatment options rather than incarceration.

“Within three years, every person who needs it and for whom it is appropriate, will have access to a drug court in Massachusetts. That’s our goal,” Trial Court Administrator Harry Spence told WBUR.

Changing opinions on drug crimes and substance abuse

While the sentiments of Massachusetts lawmakers are admirable, they are backstopped by a changing attitude of their constituents regarding the proper way to treat drug crimes. If the goal of the justice system is not to punish the crimes that are brought before them but to lessen the number of crimes committed overall, then Massachusetts citizens overwhelmingly support preventative treatment over jail time for drug offenders.

According to a survey by The Mass Inc. Polling Group, 43 percent of respondents indicated thatprevention should be the top priority when dealing with crime in general. When that question was asked of drug users, 47 percent said that sending them to treatment rather than prison would prove “very effective” regarding criminal recidivism rates. An additional 36 percent said it would be “effective,” pushing the number of affirmative respondents up to 83 percent.

In addition to a more compassionate view of how drug addiction should be approached by government agencies, there may be financial benefits to favoring treatment over incarceration as well. A 2012 study in the journal Crime and Delinquency reported that if only 10 percent of the population of drug offenders were treated in community-based programs in lieu of jail time, the criminal justice system would see $4.8 billion dollars in revenue recouped.

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