Metro

SJC says judges can base sentencing decisions on drug treatment needs

The state’s highest court said Thursday that Massachusetts judges can sometimes tailor jail sentences to match the length of time necessary for defendants to complete drug treatment programs while in custody.

The Supreme Judicial Court’s finding came in a 19-page ruling involving a Western Massachusetts woman who repeatedly violated probation by using drugs and failing to complete rehab programs, among other offenses. She had been placed on probation for larceny for stealing more than $250 worth of merchandise from a department store.

Under state law, probation violators can be taken into custody.

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During a 2016 hearing, the woman’s lawyer asked that she be jailed for at least nine months so she could complete an intensive treatment program run by the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, the ruling said.

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The judge imposed a two-year jail term, noting that with credit for time served and good-time reductions, she could be released in nine or 10 months, enough time to finish the program she requested.

But months later, the woman, represented by new counsel, unsuccessfully sought “release from the alleged unlawful restraint” and a new sentencing hearing, arguing that the judge “abused his discretion when he took into account the time requirements of a rehabilitative program she wished to enter and had urged upon him.”

Not so, according to the SJC ruling, authored by Associate Justice Barbara A. Lenk.

“Indeed, after the defendant’s failure to make use of the opportunity to avoid incarceration while on probation, the judge sought to maintain an appropriate balance between the defendant’s individualized needs and those of the community in which she resides,” Lenk wrote.

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She noted, however, that jail time should not be the preferred means of enrolling nonviolent addicts in treatment.

While the SJC, Lenk wrote, saw “no abuse of discretion in this case, it is because of the unusual context in which the challenged sentencing decision was made. The approach taken here, over a three-year period, consistently embodied the recognition that incarceration is not the preferred means of achieving rehabilitation, at least for those whose minor, nonviolent crimes are related to the effects of substance abuse.”

She continued: “At the same time, all else had failed; both the defendant’s family and the defendant herself acknowledged the need for incarceration; the defendant requested to participate, while incarcerated, in a particular program; and the judge considered that request, along with other factors, when determining the length of her committed sentence. Had the constellation of circumstances been otherwise, so might the result.”

Criminal courts aren’t the only avenue in Massachusetts for compelling addicts to get treatment. Relatives, medical providers, and police can also petition to have addicts civilly committed to treatment programs if their substance abuse puts them at risk of harming themselves or others.

Lisa Newman-Polk, an attorney who filed a brief on behalf of ten medical and legal organizations supporting the woman’s case, pointed to a footnote in the decision that cautioned judges not to impose a harsher sentence for a probation violation related to a defendant’s addiction, such as a relapse or being kicked out of a program.

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The footnote also advised judges that they should not impose a longer sentence for the purpose of keeping a defendant in a jail for substance use treatment, unless that defendant had already agreed to go into a jail drug treatment program. Doing otherwise, Lenk said, would be a “a practice fraught with peril and generally best avoided.”

“This case was complicated by the fact that the defendant and her counsel actually asked that she be incarcerated and sent to a specific jail program,” Newman-Polk said. “Most people do not ask to go to jail for treatment, so this is an important win for defendants.”

Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. Maria Cramer of the Globe staff contributed to this report.