Shifting Tides: District of Massachusetts Orders Correctional Facility to Provide Opioid Treatment

by Arlan Fuller

Case Focus

In Pesce v. Coppinger, Civ. A. No. 18-cv-11972-DJC (D. Mass. Nov. 26, 2018), the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts ordered that, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Eighth Amendment, a Massachusetts jail was required to provide an inmate, Geoffrey Pesce, prescribed methadone treatment during his incarceration. This decision will have a significant impact on the provision of medical treatment for opioid use disorder in prisons. While other jurisdictions have provided methadone treatment to incarcerated populations, Massachusetts generally has not. Further, the case is the first time a federal judge in Massachusetts has ordered that treatment must be provided.

I. The Question of Opioid Treatment in Prison

In the midst of the nation’s opioid epidemic, there is a debate as to whether to allow medical treatment for opioid use disorder in jails and prisons. Medical treatment is usually methadone, buprenorphine or another prescribed drug that reacts with the same receptors in the brain as drugs like heroin or oxycodone but does not produce a “high” if taken as directed. Studies show that about half of prisoners entering the jail system meet the criteria of substance use disorder and of that group, nearly half have a diagnosed opioid use disorder. Most jails and prisons, however, prohibit even prescribed use of methadone and buprenorphine on the grounds that the drugs present safety and security concerns.

Without treatment, however, relapses may occur, often resulting in disability or premature death. In the case of opioid use disorder, a very present danger exists in the immediate post-release period when treatment has been interrupted during incarceration. A 2007 New England Journal of Medicine study found incarcerated patients to be 129 times more likely than the general population to die of an overdose in their first two weeks following their release. But, even though the data identifies a need to consider methadone or buprenorphine treatment in prison, institutions, particularly in Massachusetts, have been slow to adopt policies allowing for such treatment. Although the Commonwealth has recently announced pilot programs for medical treatment in both jails and prisons, based on legislation passed last year, those programs have yet to begin.

II. The Pesce Decision

Given the significant numbers of prisoners with opioid use disorders, it is no surprise that courts would eventually be faced with questions regarding the availability of treatments. In July 2018, Pesce was charged with driving with a revoked or suspended license in violation of the terms of his probation. Pesce had struggled with opioid use disorder for several years. He was in active recovery since 2016 and receiving methadone treatment. It was agreed that any sentence resulting from the charges would be served in the Essex County House of Corrections. However, that facility did not provide methadone treatment to inmates. To obtain medically necessary treatment, and avoid the risk of overdose and death upon his release, Pesce requested that he be allowed to continue methadone treatment while in jail. When Pesce did not receive a response, he sought an injunction ordering that his treatment continue while he was incarcerated.

Pesce argued that the jail’s policy of denying access to methadone treatment violated his rights under the ADA. The ADA states that “no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.” Pesce asserted that the refusal to administer methadone deprived him of the benefit of health care programs, and that such conduct constituted discrimination on the basis of his disability.

Pesce also argued that the jail’s policy against methadone treatment constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The jail’s policy did not permit the treatment, regardless of his doctor’s and other medical professionals’ opinions regarding the treatment of patients who, like Pesce, struggle with recovery without methadone treatment.

Pesce demonstrated that he would suffer irreparable harm. Before starting methadone, Pesce had overdosed three times in less than 24 hours. His doctor described him as at “high risk of overdose and death upon his release” without continued methadone treatment. Statistics provided to the court also showed the dangers in not treating incarcerated individuals with opioid use disorder, including the 2007 New England Journal of Medicine study that found that nearly 50 percent of all deaths among those released from jail or prison were opioid related, with most occurring within a month of release.

The court determined that the medical needs of Pesce outweighed any harms and security concerns of the jail. The court recognized that the prison has a legitimate concern for the safety and security of its inmates. However, in Pesce’s case, methadone would be administered in the presence of prison officials and, because it is in a liquid form, would be extremely difficult to smuggle into the prison. Therefore, the court deemed the medical benefits to Pesce were greater than the risk posed to the prison. Lastly, the Court held that the public interest would be better served by ensuring that Pesce received proper medical care while in prison.

III. The Impact of the Decision

This decision will have significant and far-reaching impact. It is the first time a federal judge in Massachusetts has ruled in favor of providing methadone access in prison. Prisons in Massachusetts will need to provide access to methadone and buprenorphine treatment or likely face similar legal actions. Adding to the debate, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently affirmed a preliminary injunction ordering a jail in Maine to provide buprenorphine to treat an opioid use disorder. Smith v. Aroostook Cnty., 922 F.3d 41 (1st Cir. 2019). In Smith, as in Pesce, the court found the plaintiff would likely prevail on a claim that withholding treatment violates the ADA and Eighth Amendment. With these decisions, Massachusetts will now face even more pressure to successfully implement the upcoming pilot programs providing opioid maintenance therapy. Similar programs have been successful, such as in New York City, which in 2018 treated 900 prisoners daily with methadone and nearly 4,000 prisoners over the entire year. In fact, 74% of all prisoners with an opioid use disorder were maintained on methadone or buprenorphine during their incarceration.

More broadly, Massachusetts (and elsewhere) will need to determine whether treatment for opioid use disorder for those incarcerated should be considered a discretionary therapy that can be denied, resulting in forced withdrawal and inevitable relapse upon release, or a vital and necessary health service that is protected under by law.  In the last issue of the Boston Bar Journal, former Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and Rachel Hutchinson stated that “as the opioid epidemic grows, the way we view addiction is changing.” The Federal Court’s decision confirms this trend, showing that the corrections system offers an opportunity to engage individuals who might not have strong connections to the health system. Indeed, instead of posing a threat to those struggling with substance use disorder, the corrections system could prove to be a critical point of intervention to address an individual’s health needs. Pesce may be the first case to address medical treatment of opioid use disorders in Massachusetts, but it is unlikely to be the last.

 

Arlan Fuller, MA, JD, is the executive director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University and a research associate at the Harvard School of Public Health. His central areas of focus are in human rights law, international development, and US government and legislative strategy. Mr. Fuller received his BA in economics from the College of the Holy Cross. He holds a master’s degree in peace and conflict studies from the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, and a JD from Boston College Law School.


Massachusetts High Court Rules Judges Can Require Sobriety as Part of Probation in Commonwealth v. Eldred

CoakleyHutchinson

by Martha Coakley and Rachel Hutchinson

Case Focus

On July 16, 2018, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court unanimously ruled in Commonwealth v. Eldred, 480 Mass. 90 (2018) that judges can require individuals with substance use disorders to remain drug-free as a condition of probation.  Although the Court stressed that judges should consider the challenges of addiction, the Court nevertheless found that judges must also “have the authority to detain a defendant” who has violated probation by using drugs.  Id. at 99.  It appears that the SJC is the first state supreme court to reach and decide this issue.

I. The Addiction Debate

Remaining drug-free is an almost universal requirement of probation.  Many courts, including specialty courts such as drug courts that take a public health approach to substance abuse, require offenders to stay clean, and respond to relapses with sanctions ranging from warnings to jail time.  But as the opioid crisis has swept the nation, many have begun to question the central role that courts play in battles with substance abuse.

Eldred cut to the heart of this growing debate.  The defendant, Julie Eldred, argued that requiring her to remain drug-free as a condition of probation violated her constitutional rights.  According to Eldred, addiction is a chronic brain disease that interferes with one’s ability to abstain from drugs. Eldred argued that punishing addicts like herself for a relapse punishes them for something over which they have no control and negates willfulness.  The prosecution disagreed, arguing that addiction is a condition that ranges in intensity and is responsive to penalties and rewards.  According to the prosecution, sanctions like jail time are an important tool that judges can use to encourage recovery and promote public safety.

Many of the Eldred amici weighed in on the science of addiction, focusing on the degree of control addicted individuals have over their drug use.  For instance, the Massachusetts Medical Society argued that relapse was a symptom of a disease that must be treated, not punished.  Other amici, however, pointed out that the scientific community has not yet reached consensus about whether addiction leaves someone powerless over their drug use.  The National Association of Drug Court Professionals noted that supervision and drug testing combined with graduated sanctions helps keep individuals in recovery, and cautioned the SJC against allowing “any particular theory of addiction to influence its decision.”

II. The Eldred Decision

Eldred arose out of the 10-day incarceration of Julie Eldred after she failed a court-ordered drug test.  Eldred, who had suffered from substance use disorder since age 15, had originally been convicted of larceny for stealing jewelry to support her addiction.  Eldred’s probation required her to enroll in outpatient treatment, submit to random drug screenings, and remain drug-free.  Although Eldred originally complied with her probation, enrolling in a program and starting on a course of Suboxone, she relapsed shortly thereafter and tested positive for fentanyl, a powerful opioid.  Because no inpatient drug treatment facilities had open spots, the judge overseeing Eldred’s detention hearing ordered her held in custody until one became available 10 days later.  Eldred, 480 Mass. at 93.

At the full hearing on her probation violation, Eldred argued that this 10-day detention was unlawful because her substance use disorder “rendered her incapable of remaining drug free.”  Id. at 92.  The judge disagreed, finding that Eldred had violated her probation, but nevertheless granted Eldred’s motion to report the question regarding the lawfulness of the drug-free condition to the SJC.  The SJC found that the question was improperly reported, but agreed to consider it nonetheless because it presented “issues of significant magnitude.”  Id. at 94.

Although the parties and amici focused their arguments on the addiction debate, the SJC declined to weigh in on the science.  Instead, the Eldred decision focused on a judge’s role in setting probation conditions.  Based on longstanding precedent, the SJC decided that judges may continue to require individuals to remain drug-free while on probation, and may detain individuals who violate that condition until their probation hearing.

The SJC framed the reported question in three parts.  First, when someone who is addicted to drugs commits a crime, may a judge require her to remain drug-free as a condition of probation?  Second, if an individual violates the drug-free condition, can she be subject to probation revocation proceedings?  Third, may she be held in custody while awaiting admission to an inpatient treatment facility?  Id. at 94.

The SJC answered all three questions in the affirmative.  While the Court noted that judges who deal with those who suffer from substance use disorder should act with “flexibility, sensitivity, and compassion,” the Court ruled that judges “must have the authority to detain a defendant facing a probation violation based on illicit drug use.”  Id. at 95, 99.  The Court disagreed with Eldred that the judge’s decision to detain her constituted a punishment for her relapse.  Rather, the Court likened it to a bail decision, since no final determination on whether Eldred had violated her probation had been made.  The Court noted that the judge simply sought to detain Eldred until an inpatient facility became available.  It also held that “although the appellate record before the court was inadequate to determine whether SUD affects the brain in such a way that certain individuals cannot control their drug use,” the trial court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that there was a wilful violation of the defendant’s probation.  Id. at 104.

Finally, although the SJC agreed with Eldred that substance use disorder itself cannot be criminalized, it pointed out that “relapse is dangerous,” both for addicted individuals and the community in which they live.  Id. at 99. The Court noted that judges, who are on the front lines of the opioid epidemic, “face unresolved and constantly changing societal issues with little notice and, in many situations, without the benefit of precedential guidance.”  Id.  The Court characterized these decisions as “especially unpalatable” when an offender is addicted to drugs.  Id.  While the Court, pointing to its own Standards on Substance Abuse, acknowledged that relapse is an accepted part of recovery, the Court stressed that relapse was dangerous nonetheless, and ruled that judges must continue to have the authority to detain defendants after a relapse that violates their probationary terms.

III. Eldred’s Implications

Although Eldred maintained the status quo for judges dealing with addicted offenders, it is unlikely to be the final word on the subject.  As the opioid epidemic grows, the way we view addition is changing.  Even the Attorney General’s Office acknowledged in its briefing that “exclusively punitive responses to addiction … do not make us safer.”  While the criminal justice system may be on the front lines of the crisis for now, that role may change as other jurisdictions, legislatures, agencies, and disciplines grapple with the same questions faced in Eldred.

Martha Coakley, the first female Attorney General of Massachusetts, served from 2007-2015. Her prior experience includes District Attorney of Middlesex County; Special Attorney, Boston Organized Crime Strike Force; and Resident Fellow, Harvard Institute of Politics, John F. Kennedy School of Government. Martha has been a national leader in consumer protection, and civil rights, among other areas.  As an active member and then President of the Women’s Bar Association, Martha supported and participated in the §12S petition panel for young women needing counsel in Court.  NAAG recognized her outstanding accomplishments in 2014 when she received the Kelley-Wyman Award, given annual to the AG who has done the most to achieve NAAG objectives, Martha graduated from Williams College and the Boston University School of Law. She is a Partner in Foley Hoag’s Administrative Department where she focuses on government and internal investigations, litigation, data privacy and security, and healthcare.

Rachel Hutchinson is an associate in the firm’s Administrative Law and Litigation departments, where she represents individual and corporate clients in a wide range of regulatory matters and civil disputes. Her practice focuses on regulatory compliance, government investigations, and white collar crime. Rachel also maintains a pro bono practice focused on civil rights and LGBT issues.