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The Heroin Crisis: A 3-Day Series

Court is often the best path to care

  • 2 min to read

Many addicts who fail to get treatment, or just don’t want it, end up in the treatment system another way: through the courtroom.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Probation, arraignments for possession of Class A substances (primarily opiates) are up 90 percent in the past three years. Probation officers say they see many of the same faces over and over again, especially the young ones.

“In Lawrence, in the morning when we’re booking arrests, it’s drug case after drug case,” said Lawrence District Court probation officer Danielle Murray. “I’ve noticed a younger population addicted to heroin than I’ve ever noticed in the last 10 years. It’s frightening to me the number of kids age 18, 19, 20 we’re seeing come in with a five- or six-year addiction.”

Offenders who haven’t been using long get tested for drug dependency. If they can get through treatment, they will have their case dismissed. If a probationer fails at treatment several times, he or she needs to be monitored more closely. And then there are those who have either previously overdosed or are at high risk of doing so, and must be incarcerated to protect the individual and the community.

Murray, who works with the Lawrence Drug Court, and Haverhill District Court probation officer Jim Sagris agree that incarceration is a last resort for offenders addicted to opiates, and they have several additional tools at their disposal to get addicts help.

“One strength probation has that is not available to the community at large is we can almost mandate they seek treatment,” Sagris said.

A new tool at the disposal of these Massachusetts court officers is what is known as a Section 35 — a civil commitment to treatment.

“They don’t want to go, but they can’t be on the street,” Murray said. “They’re taken off and on probation so many times, we can’t trust them to be out on their own.”

For these addicts, the drug court received funding for detox beds to allow probationers to “jump the line,” Murray said. If parents decide to turn their child in for a Section 35 commitment, Sagris said there is a great chance that person will get into a detox bed. But much like detox beds for the public, the spots are often backed up, which may mean a stay Bridgewater State Hospital first.

Unlike Massachusetts, New Hampshire does not have a law allowing someone to petition the court system for substance abusers to be committed.

The state Bureau of Drug and Alcohol Services, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, hasn’t weighed the pros and cons of any similar law, bureau Director Joseph Harding said.

“I think that’s something that would really need to be considered by policy makers,” he said.

But detoxification beds aren’t the only answer, Murray believes. She works with a team that includes home health nurses, psychological counselors, prosecutors and police to help get people to the other side — to “graduate” the drug court system.

“It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a village to help someone through recovery who has been addicted for years,” she said. “Their capacity to think like you and I do is so overridden by cravings that they really need the support of multiple agencies to hold them in place. ... To me, that energy is worth it when you have a graduate who hasn’t reoffended.”

Sagris said this past winter, overdoses among probationers were rampant. And both probation officers say they’ve lost multiple people to overdose deaths, even some who have come out of rehab clean. But their resolve to help the next person who shows up in court hasn’t waned.

“We are successful,” Murray said. “The numbers might not be huge, but we’ve seen success in the community and that’s what keeps us all going, knowing you can do it.”

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