The District Court in Lawrence, Massachusetts, like many urban courts, is busy with a wide variety of cases. Many of the people who appear are struggling with a substance use disorder and they have been arrested for possession or a non-violent offense related to their drug use. Typically, these individuals will be given pre-trial probation. Even those defendants with multiple arrests for possession or minor charges such as shoplifting or larceny will most likely receive a term of probation with some conditions. All too often, this is the beginning of a long trek through the criminal justice system, fueled by a substance use disorder, resulting in a slow escalation of criminal activity until jail time is the only response the court can offer.
In 2007, when the spike in opioid-related activity was just beginning, I introduced the Essex County Drug Diversion Program to help address this dynamic. The Essex County Drug Diversion Program is a pre- and post-arraignment program for offenders with substance use disorders who are charged with non-violent offenses. The program provides candidates the opportunity to receive comprehensive substance use treatment services in lieu of going through the traditional court process. To date, over 1,050 people have availed themselves of the treatment services offered by this program.
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 nonviolent 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 16 years of experience as District Attorney, when a person who is addicted to drugs is given a chance at treatment and overcoming their addiction, public safely is improved.
A critical element of this program is the close collaboration between the Essex District Attorney's Office and substance use treatment provider Bridgewell. 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 substance use as an underlying issue are offered the opportunity to participate in the program.
If the offender...