Cruel and Unusual Punishment? Incarceration for Relapsed Addicts.
Drug courts have been considered by many to be an effective way to divert substance abusers from jails and prisons while assisting individuals to get clean and sober. Individuals participating in drug courts are subject to frequent random drug testing; the typical consequence for a positive drug test is immediately going to jail for several days. Now, a case before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial court has the potential to upend the drug court model.
Julie Eldred was on probation for stealing jewelry to buy drugs. A condition of her probation was not to use drugs. The first drug test she took was positive for fentanyl. Although Ms. Eldred was meeting other requirements of her probation and was staying off drugs except for one relapse, as a result of the positive drug test she was sentenced to a medium security prison until her lawyer could find her a bed in a residential treatment program. Ms. Eldred filed suit claiming that jail time for a relapsed addict amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
The judges who are deliberating Commonwealth v. Julie Eldred are asked to decide whether addiction is a disease of the brain that leaves an individual incapable of immediately stopping drug use, as Ms. Eldred’s lawyer asserts. If the court adopts this medical model of addiction and rules that incarceration for a relapsed addict is inappropriate, the precedent that might set could potentially upend the 3,400 drug courts in the country.
Our guess is it’s unlikely that the Massachusetts court will rule for Ms. Eldred. The fact that her case has made it to the Massachusetts Supreme Court may illustrate a trend towards viewing addiction as a disease. However, we don’t believe that the concept of addiction as a disease is incompatible with the work that drug courts do. The ability of drug courts to provide immediate consequences and rewards that are tailored to each individual has proven to be an effective way to assist many addicts to get off and stay off drugs.