Connecting state and local government leaders

How a Local Drug Diversion Program Is Trying to Break the Cycle of Addiction in Massachusetts

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Connecting state and local government leaders

In a guest article, the district attorney in Essex County, Massachusetts, details a local effort to offer treatment on demand to non-violent offenders rather than prosecuting them.

This is part of an ongoing series from the National District Attorneys Association highlighting local criminal justice issues. Previous articles can be found here.

SALEM, Mass. — Like many communities across the United States, the 34 cities and towns of Essex County, Massachusetts, have been battling a drug epidemic which claimed 193 lives last year. While the profile of the heroin user has changed; the outcome of heroin use has not. Heroin ruins lives and wreaks havoc on families and communities. No socio-economic group or community is immune from heroin’s devastation.

In 2007, when the spike in opioid-related activity was just beginning, I introduced the Essex County Drug Diversion Program to help address this troubling issue. This effort includes a pre- and post-arraignment program for offenders with substance abuse issues who are charged with nonviolent offenses. The program provides candidates the opportunity to receive comprehensive substance abuse treatment services in lieu of being prosecuted through the traditional court process.

At the time, it was a unique tactic to try to intervene at the beginning of the addiction cycle, which we are trying very desperately to break. Rather than watch the very predictable revolving door of drug-addicted offenders, we sought to interrupt that process by offering treatment on demand to non-violent offenders. This approach does not fit the traditional role of the prosecutor, in that we are offering services to the defendant rather than prosecuting them.  However, based upon my experience over the course of the last 14 years, when a person who is addicted to drugs is given a chance at treatment and overcoming their addiction, public safety is improved.

A critical element of this program is the close collaboration between the Essex District Attorney’s Office and Project COPE, an affiliate of Bridgewell. Project COPE is a nonprofit substance abuse treatment service provider. My Juvenile Diversion staff, in consultation with assistant district attorneys, review criminal complaints in all eight district courts each morning to identify eligible cases for diversion. Non-violent offenders with little or no criminal record with substance abuse as an underlying issue are offered the opportunity to participate in the program.

If the offender accepts this opportunity, he or she meets with a clinical case manager from Project COPE in the courthouse that same day. The offender receives a substance abuse assessment followed by immediate access to treatment. In many cases, the individual has a mental health disorder in addition to his or her substance abuse disorder. A thorough intake by the clinical case manager ensures that these issues are identified and addressed in the treatment plan. Treatment options include medical detox, emergency psychiatric evaluation, an intensive outpatient program, or residential program. Other services may include addressing homelessness or an unsafe home life. The minimum length of treatment is six months.  Although insurance will be used to pay for some of the services, no one is denied services based on an inability to pay.

If a participant fails to complete all treatment components, they will be prosecuted. However, if the participant relapses, but remains committed to recovery, their treatment plan is adjusted and they remain in the program. Once the clinical case manager informs the District Attorney’s Office that the participant has completed the treatment program, the charges against them are dismissed.

Recovery is hard work but with support and services, many people do succeed. Our program provides participants with multiple sources of support and services. The clinical case manager serves as the liaison among the program participant, the District Attorney’s Office and the treatment providers. They also often work with a participant’s family to ensure that the participant has the support they need to achieve sobriety. In addition to the clinical case manager, participants are also assigned a recovery coach who provides additional support throughout the treatment period. A recovery coach is a person who is in recovery themselves and can provide the participant a unique perspective and can assist them in identifying appropriate narcotics anonymous and alcoholics anonymous meetings and help them build a support network.

Diversion participants are also provided with various “aftercare” services including assistance with housing, employment and education as well as a special peer-led support group consisting of other diversion program graduates.

My duty as district attorney is to uphold the law and make sure the residents of Essex County are safe. I believe I am fulfilling this duty by offering drug-addicted offenders the chance to modify their behavior and get the help they need, while keeping them out of the court system.  We know that when it comes to heroin addiction, every day is critical. When we can get someone who is charged with a possessory or other minor offense to go into treatment, we are quite frankly saving lives.

Jonathan W. Blodgett has been the elected District Attorney of Essex County, Massachusetts since 2003. The Essex County Drug Diversion Program was recently recognized by the Addiction Policy Forum as an Innovative Program. For more information, click here.

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