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Scandal costs and getting smart on safety

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  October 17, 2012 12:40 PM

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This week marks the start of special drug court sessions to deal with the fallout from the Annie Dookhan-Hinton Drug Lab scandal. It's the beginning of re-litigating the cases against thousands of defendants, one by one, after the prosecution's house of cards fell, scattering tainted evidence everywhere you look.

Here's an idea: rather than drain our public coffers to re-try non-violent offenders and re-incarcerate them in over-crowded facilities, let's instead invest scarce public dollars creating community-based oversight and treatment reentry programs. Already, Mayor Thomas Menino and Police Commissioner Edward Davis are asking for $15 million to start such programs. Good for them for thinking big and acknowledging, at least implicitly, that the "war on drugs" has been a failure.

It's time to get smart on crime, and the drug lab scandal is a chance to do it right.

Compare that $15 million pricetag for providing social services to the estimated more than $100 million price tage for relitigating the 34,000 cases tained by the drug lab scandal!

First, the money. Mr. Conley last week gave a starting estimate that prosecutors will need at least $50 million to re-try all these cases. Defense attorneys will need at least that much to ensure a fair process. Moreover, the tax bill is likely to grow. Preliminary reports say that Ms. Dookhan had unusual contacts with prosecutors and police--a pretty good indication that the number of tainted cases will multiply.

Re-prosecuting tainted cases one by one might make sense for violent crimes, but for drug crimes it does not. Throwing drug addicts in jail doesn't keep anyone safe. As a recent Massachusetts Bar Association task force has found, those cases have made "not a dent" in drug use.

Mr. Conley and the other prosecutors should work with Attorney General Martha Coakley to instead drop all the drug cases involving defendants who were not charged with violent crimes or weapons offenses, and spend that money instead on community-based treatment and job-training programs. That's precisely what the ACLU of Massachusetts and Families Against Mandatory Minimums have asked prosecutors to do.

The vast majority of non-violent offenders are incarcerated for crimes directly related to drug addiction--drug possession, small sales and small-time theft to pay for drugs. Filling our jails and prisons with these people doesn't address the underlining cause of their criminal activity--drug addiction. It certainly doesn’t guarantee that they will stop using drugs since we know that drug use is commonplace in our jails and prisons. Rather than waste millions of dollars to warehouse people, we should provide them with treatment services.

For such a program to be truly successful however, we need to look beyond the standard treatment box of 30-day treatment and 12-step programs. Drug addiction is a symptom of much larger personal and social issues. And if we want people to end the cycle of addiction, incarceration, detox and then relapse, we need to look at people as a whole.

Community-based treatment plans should be developed for each individual with addiction services being only one aspect of the required treatment. Individualized treatment plans should also include, if applicable, GED classes, anger management, parenting classes, job training and family counseling--and ALL of this would still cost only a fraction of re-litigating these cases and filling our jails with drug addicts.

We also need to invest in meaningful re-entry and job training services for folks who have been locked up based on faulty evidence and will be returning to the community.

The Mayor, Police Commissioner and Mr. Conley have begun to talk publicly about community re-entry strategies for the estimated 500 to 700 people who are likely to be released from local jails and prisons--saying they need at least $15 million to do it.

Good for them for thinking about the big picture. Wise investments in our communities are essential for righting the injustice these folks have suffered as well as for ensuring public safety. It's common sense to put some resources into helping them get back on their feet. In addition to help finding housing, connecting with health services, other case management and peer support, people returning to the community need job training and basic pre-job skills. It's in our collective interest to prepare these individuals for productive, meaningful lives. I look forward to seeing the specific investments the city will make to ensure that their re-entry is as smooth and successful as possible.

Adopting these proposals will repair the integrity of the Commonwealth's justice system, save taxpayer dollars and bring some justice to this scandal's victims. Let's take this opportunity to improve the lives of real people, their families and our communities by helping them become productive members of society. The black cloud of the drug lab scandal can, in fact, have a silver-lining and help us get smart on crime and build safer communities.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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