(CN) – In a closely watched case for criminal-justice reform advocates, the highest court of Massachusetts unanimously found nothing improper about requiring that a person remain drug-free as a condition of probation.
“Trial court judges, particularly judges in the drug courts, stand on the front lines of the opioid epidemic,” a seven-judge panel found in a 27-page ruling issued Monday. “Judges face unresolved and constantly changing societal issues with little notice and, in many situations, without the benefit of precedential guidance.”
The tricky case at issue involved 29-year-old Julie Eldred, who was put on probation for a year in 2016 for stealing more than $250 from the home of a dog-walking client. Eldred said that she committed larceny to support her heroin addiction, and she tested positive for fentanyl while on probation for that crime.
Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Justice David Lowy called the conditions for Eldred’s probation appropriate.
“The conditions directly addressed the defendant's personal circumstances and, significantly, her stated motivation for committing the crime – purchasing illegal drugs,” Lowy wrote for the panel.
Eldred’s attorney Lisa Newman-Polk, a public defender and clinical social worker who advocates to end what she calls the criminalization of addiction, called the decision a “huge disappointment” in a phone interview.
“I can’t explain why the court ignored what’s in the surgeon general’s 2016 report on addiction,” Newman-Polk said.
Then-Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy shattered taboos surrounding addiction two years ago in the first report of its kind, totaling 413 pages.
“Most Americans know someone with a substance use disorder, and many know someone who has lost or nearly lost a family member as a consequence of substance misuse,” the executive summary of the report said. “Yet, at the same time, few other medical conditions are surrounded by as much shame and misunderstanding as substance use disorders.”
The Massachusetts Medical Society, American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry, and Association for Behavioral Healthcare were among the dozens of organizations that filed friend-of-the-court briefs.
But the state’s high court rejected that a scientific consensus had been reached.
“In its original form, the reported question presumes that there is a scientific consensus concerning SUD's impact on the brain, particularly how it affects an individual's ability to abstain from using drugs,” one footnote states, using the abbreviation for substance use disorder. “Embedded within the question, which was drafted and submitted by the defendant, is the conclusion that this scientific issue was resolved in the defendant's favor. This issue, however, was not subject to adversarial scrutiny, let alone resolved.”
In a separate footnote, the judges denied criminalizing a mental condition.
“We note that neither the limited facts in this case nor the law of the commonwealth supports the defendant's assertions that addiction has been criminalized or that relapse is being punished,” they wrote.
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