Opioid user hoped to sacrifice her free will to state Supreme Court

In Commonwealth v. Eldred (Comm. v. Eldred),  an underreported July 16 case with nationwide  implications, where addiction was an underlying issue in a criminal case, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that it is not cruel and unusual punishment to put a person who is on probation in jail after one positive test for drugs.

Less than two weeks after a court ordered Julie Eldred to not use drugs while on probation, she tested positive for the opioid fentanyl.  Consequently, Ms. Eldred, a chronic substance-abuser, spent about ten days in jail until an inpatient treatment bed was available. 

In the subsequent appeal, Lisa Newman-Polk, Ms. Eldred's attorney, argued that incarceration was unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment because Ms. Eldred's substance abuse disorder made her incapable of remaining drug-free.

Newman-Polk, a certified social worker with clinical experience treating addiction, called the decision a "massive blow" that would place the court "on the wrong side of history."

The court did not agree.  Nor do I.  To the contrary, adoption of Miss Eldred's disease theory would dangerously undermine America's efforts to combat its metastasizing opioid epidemic and almost certainly lead to increased drug-related deaths, increased risks to public safety, increased recidivism, longer prison sentences for addicts without the possibility of probation or parole, fewer options like drug courts to incentivize recovery, and millions of new dollars invested in unproven community drug treatment programs.

Most important, it would remove an addict's personal responsibility in the recovery process, the sine qua non of successful recovery.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, substance abuse disorder (SUD) occurs when a person's use of drugs or alcohol leads to health issues or problems at work, school, or home.  Relapse is often a part of the recovery process.

But not everyone agrees with the disease model.   

The court cited the Commonwealth's behavioral model, which postulates that SUD may affect an individual's urge to use substances, but it does not render that individual without the free will to use substances.  The majority ultimately concluded that the defendant's claim of SUD rested "on science that is not tested."

Justice David J. Lowry, writing for the majority, emphasized that a defendant who violates probation is being punished not for the violation (drug use), but "anew on his underlying conviction."  The court recognized that "addiction is a status that may not be criminalized."

Continuing, the requirement of remaining drug free is not, as Ms. Eldred contends, "an outdated moral judgment about an individual's addiction.  Rather ... the requirement is based on the [sentencing] judge's consideration of the defendant's circumstances and that she committed the underlying crime to support her drug use."

Having worked with many addicts for many years, I can attest that many former users credit a stint in jail (or the mere threat) with jump-starting their recovery.

Justice Lowry's well reasoned opinion will help protect defendants by giving them clear motivation to remain substance-free while providing for the protection of the public.  Ironically, should she remain clean and sober, Ms. Eldred may one day thank the sentencing judge for saving her life.

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