Friedman advocates for treatment, not imprisonment

BOSTON – On October 22, Senator Cindy F. Friedman (D-Arlington) testified before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary on legislation she filed that would end the court’s practice of incarcerating a defendant with a substance use disorder whose only infraction during pretrial release or while on probation is a drug relapse. This legislation is part of Friedman’s ongoing effort to address the opioid crisis, end the criminalization of substance use disorder, and decrease recidivism and unnecessary incarceration in the Commonwealth.

Every year, Massachusetts courts mandate thousands of people suffering from substance use disorder to submit to drug-testing as a condition of pretrial release or probation. If relapse occurs, many are incarcerated – even when they are actively working to achieve long-term recovery.

Friedman’s bill, S.937, would allow the court, when a defendant has a substance use disorder, to order the defendant to participate in treatment as a condition of pretrial release or probation, but prohibit the court from imposing incarceration if relapse is the only infraction and the defendant is otherwise engaged in treatment.

In other words, if a court orders a defendant to pursue treatment as a condition of pretrial release or probation and the defendant is in good faith pursuing such treatment, any relapse by the defendant could not be cited by the court as a violation of pretrial release or probation (and thus, subject to the penalty of incarceration).

“It is both unsafe and unjust to require defendants suffering from substance use disorder to remain relapse-free or else face jail,” said Friedman, a member of the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery. “It is also contrary to all of the scientific research, which tells us that relapses are part of recovery. The passage of this bill is essential step in helping individuals undergo the natural process of recovery and get the treatment they need without the fear of being taken back to a jail cell during pretrial or probation.”

In her testimony, Friedman clarified that criminal activity while released during pretrial or while on probation, including drug possession charges, would still be a violation under S.937. This bill simply stops the court from interfering with treatment for people who are committed to and consistently attending treatment, but nonetheless relapse.

This legislation is a result of a collaborative effort among Friedman, several senators, and a wide variety of advocacy organizations, including the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery (MOAR), the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the Massachusetts Medical Society, and the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center.

If passed, Friedman contends this bill would enhance public safety by enabling defendants to authentically engage in treatment and communicate honestly with their providers about relapse without fear that they will be locked up as result. Friedman also believes the bill will prevent courts from disrupting the treatment process, decrease incarceration rates, and save lives by helping people exit the dangerous cycle of relapse and incarceration and instead find sustained recovery.

To track the progress of the bill, visit