Drug abuse drops under tough new court program

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2015/11/23/drug-abuse-drops-under-tough-new-court-program/

BOSTON – A program aimed at keeping ex-offenders from relapsing into drug abuse and crime shows early signs of success in Worcester, one of several communities where it’s being assessed for wider adoption.

The program, known as HOPE/MORR, aims to keep probationers out of prison by imposing immediate punishment, including jail time, for even the most minor violations. The program targets those considered most likely to re-offend and shows signs of successfully reducing the recidivism rate in Worcester, the state’s second-largest city.

Just 18 out of 104 participants, or 17 percent, have relapsed, according to figures provided by Coria Holland, a spokeswoman for the state probation office in Boston. By comparison, Holland pointed to a 2009 report from the Center for Criminal Justice Research at the University of Cincinnati that showed a typical recidivism rate within one year of about 59 percent for high-risk men and 69 percent for those at very high risk. The Worcester program includes both types of participants. State officials regard the relatively low recidivism rate so far as very promising.

“We’ve had tremendous results,” Ed Dolan, the Massachusetts probation commissioner, said in an interview.

The indications that the program can dramatically cut drug use by participants suggest it can play a role in alleviating an epidemic of opioid abuse that has killed hundreds of Massachusetts residents in the past several years. The severity of the problem led Gov. Charlie Baker to make it a priority when he took office in January. Last month, he proposed a bill that would let doctors hold addicts against their will for up to three days for evaluation.

Opioids are derived from the same pain-suppressing chemicals found in morphine and heroin, and include drugs like oxycontin and fentanyl. The state Public Health Department has said that 1,256 people died in Massachusetts from drug overdoses in 2014, a third more than in the previous year and up from 456 deaths in 2004.

Drug abuse and addiction is often tied to criminal behavior. Hawaii state Judge Steven Alm came up with the model for the HOPE/MORR program as he sought a new way to keep offenders on probation from relapsing into drug abuse, committing crimes to support a habit and ultimately returning to prison. In Massachusetts, his system is called Honest Opportunity Probation with Enforcement, or HOPE, combined with a local element, called Massachusetts Offender Recidivism Reduction, or MORR. The program combines random drug tests with required meetings and stiff penalties for any failures.

Under HOPE/MORR, judges can deal promptly with minor infractions of the rules and don’t have to choose either jailing the offending participant or merely issuing a verbal warning.

Explaining what this can mean to a judge, Dolan said it provides a degree of flexibility. A judge, he said, may respond to a situation by saying: “`Am I willing to send you to prison because you were 20 minutes late for your drug test? No. Am I willing to make you sit in the dock till five o’clock today? Oh yeah, I’m willing to do that.’”

Traditionally, the judicial system applies an either-or response to a violation committed by someone on probation because of a previous offence. Judges can either send a person who makes a single mistake to jail or they can issue a warning. Because judges often don’t want to send someone to prison for months or years for a minor violation, there’s a tendency toward leniency – only to end with repeat offenders being put behind bars anyway, according to Dolan.

“Judge Alm was sort of concerned that we were really engaged in kind of enabling behavior,” Dolan said, referring to when judges opt for lenience. Under the HOPE/MORR program, warnings aren’t among the judge’s options.

When Alm’s tougher approach slashed the recidivism rate by half in his Hawaii district, federal authorities took note and decided to try the approach in other areas. Besides Massachusetts, programs have been set up in Arkansas; Clackamas County, Oregon, southeast of Portland; and Tarrant County, Texas, which encompasses Fort Worth.

In addition to the no-violation-goes-unpunished mantra, violators in the HOPE/MORR program are hauled in front of judges quickly, rather than waiting weeks for a hearing. The speed of the response reinforces the sense of accountability, according to officials involved.

“Every violation of a condition of probation will result in … a swift, certain, but parsimonious and fair sanction,” said Worcester District Court Judge Paul F. LoConto, one of the participating jurists in the HOPE/MORR program, in an interview.

Similar pilot projects are under way or planned in Chelsea, Salem and Lowell. Salem was the first to adopt the program, in 2011, under an $849,000 federal grant from the National Institute for Justice. State officials believed so strongly in HOPE/MORR that they tapped $2.4 million in state funds to expand it to the other courts, and nine more are expected to set up programs by June 2016, according to Dolan.

To clamp down on drug abuse and prevent relapses, mandatory tests are required for the participating probationers, according to Dolan. Keeping participants sober is a key to helping them find their way back to a more normal life and preventing them from returning to crime.

“If you’re high or drunk, then you’re not going to do the other things that we see as part of this behavior change process,” Dolan said. “You’re not going to go to treatment. You’re not going to get a job. You’re not going to have a stable living.”

More than 80 percent of probationers have substance abuse issues, but about two-thirds of HOPE/MORR participants have been able to get clean and sober, according to Dolan.

Those in the Worcester program have been far less likely to relapse into drug use, according to Sheila Flanagan, the local HOPE/MOR coordinator and a former probation officer. Normally, as many as 20 percent of probationers test positive for drugs. Between April and August, she said, the rate was 5.4 percent among the Worcester program’s participants. Worcester officials hope to double the number of program participants by June before wrapping up the assessment phase, Flanagan said.

The ultimate goal is to help participating offenders learn to make better life choices, officials say. Judges and probation officers deliver that message to probationers when they enter the program and the rules are explained.

“We want them to succeed,” LoConto said. “We say that.”

“Is it working? I hope it is. I feel like it is,” the judge said.