At 27, Julie Eldred had spent nearly half her life addicted to drugs. She got caught stealing jewelry to support her habit in 2016 but avoided jail time when she was sentenced to probation.
But the sentence came with a condition widely used in the criminal justice system — she had to remain drug-free. Just days into a treatment program, she relapsed. She tested positive for fentanyl and was sent to MCI-Framingham.
Now in recovery, Eldred testified before state lawmakers Tuesday on a bill that would prevent judges from incarcerating defendants who are in treatment and fail a mandatory drug test while on probation.
“That just ripped me right out of all my treatments, everything,” Eldred said. “The beginning of recovery is such a sensitive part for people, emotions and everything. And to be ripped out and thrown into prison, where I’m strip-searched and thrown into a cell and I’m now actually around more drugs than I was when I was outside — I don’t know. Prison was probably one of the worst experiences of my life.”
The bill would give addicts who get into legal trouble a choice: If judges order them not to use drugs or alcohol during their probation and they relapse, they could ask to be placed in treatment instead of being incarcerated. A positive drug or alcohol test by itself would not be considered a violation of their probation.
“The overwhelming evidence is that treatment is more effective than imprisonment,” said state Representative Ruth Balser, who sponsored the House version of the bill. “Putting people into the criminal justice system can be traumatizing at a time when we want people to get more support in their recovery.”
People could still be imprisoned if they are arrested again, including on charges of illegal drug possession.
Representatives from the state’s trial court and probation systems declined to comment on the legislation. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Although no one testified against the bill Tuesday, its future is not certain. The committee could vote to advance it to the full Legislature, but that may not happen this year, or at all.
“I think it’s really about educating the Legislature and the public over and over about addiction,” Balser said. “For people to appreciate that relapse is part of the illness. It’s not a moral failing, it’s part of the illness.”
Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan spoke briefly in favor of the bill.
“This bill reflects the way that we do business in Middlesex County, which understands that in the disease of addiction, relapse is a part of recovery, and that should be a factor,” Ryan said. “It does have to be in active treatment, not having cases continued indefinitely, but I support the position of that bill.”
Dr. Peter Friedmann, president of the Massachusetts Society of Addiction Medicine, called relapse an “expected” part of recovery.
“The traditional practice of imprisoning persons with substance use disorder for recurrent use . . . ignores the natural history of substance use disorder, which is characterized by ongoing, compulsive substance use despite negative consequences; physical dependence; and difficulty abstaining, despite a person’s resolution to do so,” Friedmann said.
Eldred had challenged the court system’s routine practice of incarcerating those who fail a mandatory drug test while on probation. Her lawyer, Lisa Newman-Polk, argued that Eldred’s substance use disorder made it “virtually impossible” to stay sober through sheer will.
Last year, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court rejected the argument, with Justice David A. Lowy writing that “judges cannot ignore the fact that relapse is dangerous for the person who may be in the throes of addiction and, often times, for the community in which that person lives.”
“Trial court judges . . . stand on the front lines of the opioid epidemic,” Lowy wrote. “In circumstances where a defendant is likely addicted to drugs and the violation in question arises out of the defendant’s relapse, judges are faced with difficult decisions that are especially unpalatable.”
Newman-Polk said she has seen clients relapse and, instead of seeking help, avoid their treatment programs and probation officers because they fear being found out and sent to prison.
She hopes the bill would allow them to stay in the system instead of running from it.
“It would be incentivizing people to stay engaged in treatment,” she said.
Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 617-929-2043.