Massachusetts should stop “committing” people to prisons and jails for drug treatment

The Prison Policy Initiative signs on to a letter urging Massachusetts state lawmakers to stop jailing people who need substance use treatment.

by Jenny Landon, June 23, 2020

In the midst of an uprising against police violence and racism, communities across the country are asking a simple question: why are police and jails used to treat social problems? Wouldn’t mental illness, substance use, homelessness, and poverty be better handled within the community, and without the threat of incarceration?

In Massachusetts, men who have substance use disorder can be put in jail or prison when they are committed for drug treatment (“committed” meaning involuntarily taken into state custody). This is not a rare occurance: in 2018, courts committed over 5,700 people under “Section 35.” Nearly two-thirds of those evaluated for commitment were men, and nearly a quarter were homeless. These men have not committed a crime, but wind up in jail nonetheless. As we know, jails have an abysmal track record when it comes to health care—and jail time is no substitute for substance use treatment.

Massachusetts is the last state in the country that locks people up when they’re committed for substance use, but now, the state’s Joint Committee on Health Care Financing is considering advancing a bill that would end this practice. We signed on to a letter written by Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts that supports H.4531, the bill that would ban the use of incarceration for men who are committed for drug treatment.

It is past time for Massachusetts to stop using the criminal justice system as a band-aid for social problems, and to stop punishing people with medical conditions. A good place to start would be to stop locking up people who need drug treatment.

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