Eldridge and Sannicandro: Focus on treatment over punishment

By Jamie Eldridge and Tom Sannicandro
Guest Columnists

MetroWest Daily News column posted here.

With the reality that drug addiction is a problem in every single community in Massachusetts, we as state legislators are beginning to ask tough questions about society’s current response to this epidemic, and have begun proposing solutions that will create change, and make a difference in the lives of people and their families struggling with addiction. Our communities are reeling, some at near critical levels, and we are beginning to understand that it will take a strong and steady approach to put us on a path toward healing our families and neighborhoods.

Locking up those with drug addiction, instead of focusing on treatment, leads to the costly overcrowding of prisons. This contributes to a high rate of recidivism as addicts relapse without the proper support. Currently, we incarcerate thousands of non-violent drug offenders in Massachusetts at a cost of close to $60,000 a year, while those who enter treatment facilities are more likely to overcome their addiction and rejoin their family members at less than one-fifth of the cost.

Because there are proven alternatives to addressing substance abuse we came together to form the Harm Reduction and Drug Law Reform Caucus in the Legislature earlier this year. The caucus quickly attracted a bi-partisan group of representatives and senators that has grown to over 60 members, all of whom are committed to systemically tackling the issue.

The caucus is highlighting legislation that will help to decrease addiction rates, crime and harm to our communities and increase access to treatment through a framework that treats addiction as the public health crisis it is, and also looking at drafting new legislation for the next legislative session, which begins in January. Here are some of the bills that we believe can best reverse the addiction crisis that exists in Massachusetts today.

First, mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders must be eliminated. Every member of our community facing drug charges because of their addiction has a unique set of circumstances that got them there and requires an individual level of support that cannot be addressed once a judge’s hands are tied by mandatory sentencing laws based solely on the weight of a drug someone is caught with.

Second, the commonwealth needs to invest more in drug addiction treatment, including expanding the number of treatment beds available for people struggling with addiction, and that such treatment is long-term, and not a mere 30 days.

Finally, we need to embrace alternatives to a “tough on crime” model. Instead, we need to broaden our approach to being smart on crime. Ideas to change the status quo include increasing the number of drug courts across Massachusetts to specifically handle substance abuse cases and provide options where individuals are able to seek supports rather than punishments to become addiction-free. New models of criminal justice should also be embraced, such as restorative justice. Under a restorative justice model, individuals accused of certain non-violent crimes are diverted from the court system, and have to go through a community-based process where an individual better understands the harm he or she caused to another person, and has to take actions to recognize that harm.

We believe that putting resources toward these alternatives to the traditional criminal justice system will create results that are more effective, improve public safety and put the lives of people suffering from addiction on a positive track, while costing a fraction of the price. The Harm Reduction and Drug Law Reform Caucus has laid out a vision for criminal justice reform for the next legislative session, and its numbers continue to grow. We hope that concerned residents and families will join this effort, and work collaboratively to create change that will make a difference in people’s lives in the years to come.

Jamie Eldridge is a state senator from Acton. Tom Sannicandro is a state representative from Ashland. The two are the co-chairmen of the Legislature’s Harm Reduction and Drug Law Reform Caucus.

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