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Michael Litman July 9, 2018

When a Drug Relapse Leads to Jail Time

Julie Eldred of Stow, Massachusetts, was on her 11th day of probation when she tested positive for fentanyl. Within hours she was returned to jail, as reported in the New York Times (June 4, 2018).

Eldred was originally arrested for stealing jewelry to buy her drugs. She was let out on probation and had been taking Suboxone from her doctor to relieve her cravings. A few days into her probation, she relapsed on fentanyl; but in order to keep herself from spiraling out of control, she talked to her doctor and had her Suboxone dose increased. Nevertheless, the drug test still detected Eldred’s relapse and a few days later she went to jail for breaking her probation.

Cases like Eldred’s lead to concerns about whether sending addicts to jail for relapses during probation is the right policy or not. Part of the problem is that the law has to find a way to avoid punishing people who can’t help their actions, while also avoiding allowing addicts to commit crimes all they want.

Addiction is a Disease—Maybe

One of the big questions that underlie these concerns is whether or not addiction is a disease. If it’s a disease, the addict who hasn’t been cured has an impaired capacity to avoid using his or her drug of choice. If it’s not a disease, a system of rewards and punishments should help to solve it.

The problem here is that conflicting scientific studies draw conflicting conclusions. According to some scientists, addiction is a disease of the brain, and relapses are to be expected as part of an addict’s recovery process. However, others dispute this and say that addicts are still capable of choosing not to use, regardless of the changes addiction causes in brain structure.

Does the Threat of Jail Time Help?

Julie Eldred’s case hinges on the question of whether or not an addict can reasonably be expected to abstain from drug use during the recovery process. If addiction is a disease of the brain, the argument is that an addict can’t help it if he or she relapses in recovery. If that’s true, making an individual’s probation dependent on remaining totally sober is unfair, cruel, and often impossible.

On the other hand, if addiction is a condition that an individual can exercise some freedom in, the threat of jail on one hand and the promise of probation, on the other hand, offers strong incentives for the addict to abstain from using. In this case, the threat of jail time would be a helpful measure to avoid relapses. These are complex questions, and the Massachusetts Supreme Court will have to decide them in relation to Ms. Eldred’s case.

In New York, there are many cases similar to this one, in which relapses result in violations of probation. However, New York State has taken the initiative to set up “drug courts”, in which individuals accused of non-violent crimes that are drug addiction related can get treatment for their drug addiction problems, with the possibility of dismissal of their criminal charges if they are successful in treatment. The Drug Courts also take the possibility of relapse into account when dealing with defendants involved in court, and tries to get them back on the right track rather than just penalizing them.

If you are charged with a drug-related crime and need help overcoming your drug addiction, call us immediately to discuss the possibility of getting involved in Drug Court. We have guided clients into drug court programs in multiple jurisdictions around Westchester as well as the New York Metro area, and we can help you determine if drug court is right for you.

Contact Us Today

Since 2014, the Law Office of Michael D. Litman has been representing the criminal defense needs of the citizens of White Plains, Westchester County, and the New York Metro area. With Attorney Michael Litman defending clients since 2007, we have the knowledge and the experience to help with all your criminal defense needs. If you have questions or need to set up a consultation, contact us online or call us today. Our firm will work with you from the arraignment all the way through the trial.


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