Judges must be mindful of substance abuse

As a former Massachusetts State Police detective and now a defense attorney of 34 years, I have seen the ruin that addiction to drugs and alcohol causes in the lives of many of those who end up ensnared in the criminal justice system. And the price is paid not just by those who become defendants, but also by their families and their children.

On a larger scale, the impact of this rampant public health issue is sobering. Despite our state’s progressive reputation, Massachusetts has continued the judgmental, dismissive, widespread practice of criminalizing – rather than treating – the disease of addiction. Recently, the state Department of Correction reported that just 972 inmates had completed a substance abuse program out of a total prison population of 11,400.

As a recently elected Governor’s Councillor, I have, and will continue to, use my vote to insist that candidates nominated for judgeships by Gov. Deval Patrick have a thorough understanding of the drug epidemic in the Commonwealth. Nominees must demonstrate an understanding of the breadth of the issue because only then can they, as judges, make wise decisions about the individual standing in front of them, someone who is far more likely to need treatment than incarceration.

According to Columbia University’s Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse, 1.5 million of the roughly 2.3 million prisoners in our jails across the country meet the medical diagnostic criteria for substance abusers. Another 400,000 people committed crimes while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Yet only 11 percent of the inmates with these problems – medical problems – receive treatment while in jail. 

We as a society have suffered from this approach. Not only can the crimes of those addicted become increasingly severe until the escalation ends with the ultimate crime of murder, but they can also cost us a staggering amount of money, some $45,000 a year in Massachusetts to house, feed and guard a single inmate per year.

That’s money that can be, and should be, spent on treatment programs, not prisons. 

There is no shortage of professionally conducted studies that classify addiction as a medical disease, an illness that should be treated with the same kind of compassion provided to cancer patients. These same studies underscore the reality that treating people for addiction costs less than criminalizing them. It is also an effective crime fighting tool because treatment interrupts the escalating cycle, preventing the most severe of crimes. 

I believe the judges who sit in Massachusetts’s courtrooms must be well-informed about the issue of substance abuse, and have their own sense of justice that includes a viable understanding of addiction. Judges must be ready to make the often-unpopular decision to steer a person away from prison, and must not turn a blind eye to this public health – not public safety – crisis.

That is why we need judges sitting on our benches who have empathetic personalities, men and women who can put themselves in someone else’s shoes, who can understand the failings of our current system – and be the courageous leaders we need to choose treatment over prison.

Robert Jubinville, a Milton resident, is the Governor’s Councillor from District 2.