Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Upholds Judge’s Decision to Incarcerate Defendant to Compel Attendance at Treatment Program

The Massachusetts Supreme Court today concluded a district court judge’s decision to impose a jail sentence against a defendant to allow her time to complete a drug rehabilitation program behind bars was lawful.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Plasse

In August of 2013, the defendant shoplifted more than $250 worth of merchandise from a department store.  She was charged with larceny.  She ultimately confessed to the crime and her case was continued without a finding, which means she was on probation for one year.  If she had successfully completed her probationary term, the case would have been dismissed.  Unfortunately, the defendant was unable to abide by the conditions of her probation.  Only a month after she pled out the case, the defendant was accused by the Probation Department of failing to satisfy the requirements of a court-ordered outpatient drug treatment program and failing to pay money assessed by the Court.  Two months later, she admitted to using THC.  The following month, she tested positive for cocaine, amphetamine, and morphine.  With the multiple violations, the judge extended the term of the defendant’s probation and ordered her to complete a residential drug treatment program.  During the ensuing months, the defendant left the program and continued to test positive for drugs.  After the defendant failed to complete two additional court-order residential drug programs, the judge finally decided to send her to jail, where she could complete a drug program while incarcerated.  The judge sentenced her to serve two years, understanding that with the time the defendant had already served and the time she could earn by behaving herself behind bars, she would likely be released in approximately nine months (which would give her time to complete the program).  The defendant objected to the sentence, and argued the judge had improperly considered the length of the rehab program in calculating the length of her jail sentence.  The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.

In imposing a sentence, a judge it obligated to consider multiple goals, including deterrence, rehabilitation, protection of the public, and punishment.  The SJC ruled it was appropriate for the sentencing judge to take into account the defendant’s substance abuse problem (and her absolute inability to stop using drugs).  The judge considered the defendant’s request to participate in the rehabilitation program administered by the jail and imposed a sentence that would provide her enough time to complete the program.  The judge properly balanced the defendant’s individual needs and the needs of the community where she lives, and the two-year sentence was therefore appropriate.

The SJC noted that incarceration is not the preferred method of attempting to achieve rehabilitation.  Simply jailing drug addicts is not an effective way to combat the opioid epidemic.  However, in this case, the sentencing judge was left with no choice after the defendant repeatedly demonstrated her inability to complete a drug rehabilitation program while on probation.  This case illustrates the hard decisions sentencing judges need to make in trying to give drug addicts the tools to become clean.  While jail is the last resort, it was the only option for the defendant.