News & Media Coverage

New drug court in Brockton may save lives

August 14, 2014  |  The Boston Globe  |  Link to article

By Michele Morgan Bolton

One in a series of occasional articles about opiate abuse and its consequences.

A drug court could open as soon as this fall in Brockton, the hardscrabble hub of the region south of Boston that is consumed, like much of the state, by an opioid crisis.

First Justice Julie J. Bernard will oversee the new addition to Brockton District Court that was announced late last month by state Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey and Court Administrator Harry Spence.

State officials have allocated $3 million from the 2015 state budget to add nine new specialty court sessions to the current 26, including five new drug courts, two mental health courts, and two veterans’ treatment courts.

Locally, drug courts are already open in New Bedford, Plymouth, and Quincy.

Brockton’s mayor, Bill Carpenter, listed a drug court as a plank of his 10-point plan while running for election last year, and he said the specialty court’s arrival is not only necessary but “very long overdue.”

“Nonviolent offenders struggling with addiction need treatment, not jail,’’ said Carpenter, whose advocacy helped establish the Southeastern Massachusetts Recovery High School in Brockton in 2011.

“Locking them up does not solve the problem,” he said.

Carpenter said city police statistics show that 90 percent of Brockton’s property crimes are committed by people stealing to support a drug habit.

“This court will save lives,’’ he said.

The drug court philosophy, based on accountability and compliance, is a viable alternative to incarceration for low-level offenders whose addictions have entangled them with the law.

Each community or court handles it differently, but what remains the same, according to the Massachusetts Bar Association, is that if a defendant relapses, fails to follow the treatment plan, or acquires a new criminal complaint, the presiding judge can apply sanctions ranging from residential treatment to house arrest to jail.

Rampant opioid addiction and a rash of heroin overdoses last winter prompted Governor Deval Patrick to declare a public health emergency. But members of the Brockton Interfaith Community’s public safety committee had been calling for a faith-based alternative to prison for four years before that.

BIC, as the grass-roots organization is called, is a coalition of 15 congregations that are addressing the opiate crisis head-on.

“Over the past several years the numbers of people being sent to prison for low-level drug offenses had really skyrocketed,’’ said Julie Aronowitz, a BIC spokeswoman. “We thought a court here had real potential.”

BIC safety committee chairman John Messia, a former Marine, said he got involved after a pair of rival gangs had a drug-related shootout in front of his West Chestnut Street home a few years ago, terrifying his wife and children.

For Messia, the crisis hit home even harder when a pair of close family members became addicted to prescription drugs and a friend died from a heroin overdose. He could hardly ignore the unwelcome trend at his doorstep.

Still, he said, “No one was talking about it. And the average person doesn’t understand how physically addictive drugs are and what they lead to.”

Currently, 23 million people in the United States have gotten their lives back through long-term recovery, Messia said. But another 25 million are still addicted.

“We need to work on those who don’t deserve to be in a jail cell,’’ he said. “Not the armed robber, but the son or daughter.”

Meghann Perry is a case in point. The Bridgewater resident suffered a 15-year odyssey in and out of rehab and jail. A Scituate native and onetime president of her 4H Club, she became an addict as a teen and spent years dirty and homeless, hooked on heroin, methadone, and cocaine.

“Addiction is a disease of secrets and isolation,’’ she said. “It feeds on loneliness, guilt, and shame.”

Perry lived on the fringes of society when she was using drugs, places she said no one would notice her. She went days without eating, changing her clothes, or sleeping, months without speaking to her family, and years without health care or a job.

Then she entered a faith-based residential treatment program through drug court in Maine and got her life back, she said. Brockton’s drug court will perform similar miracles, she said.

“We can change how addicts are treated,’’ Perry said. “We can stop pushing them to the margins of society and sticking them away in institutions and jails, out of our sight. We need to love them until they can love themselves.”

The Rev. Joe Raeke, pastor of the Tri-Parish Community of St. Edith Stein, Christ the King, and Our Lady of Lourdes in Brockton, was thrilled at news of the drug court. He said he has been working with others through BIC on ways to involve the community in solving the drug crisis.

“Sad to say a lot of people in my parish, and a lot of people I know, are addicted,’’ Raeke said. “I’ve never really been that involved in social action until I came here.”

Raeke said the interfaith support for the court is based on the Scriptural tenet that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

“And if our brother or sister is not well? We can’t just let them slip away and die,’’ he said. “We need to do whatever it takes to bring them back.”

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at