Edwards Calls for New Approach to Combat Drug Epidemic - The Valley Advocate

New Approach Needed to Combatting Drug Epidemic 

By Springfield City Councilor Melvin Edwards

 

In March, Governor Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency in our Commonwealth in the wake of over 150 deaths as a result of heroin overdoses. Here in Springfield and throughout the Pioneer Valley, the opiate abuse epidemic has been evident. While tragic, these deaths highlight the failure of the nationwide “War on Drugs” and a failure of policy here in Massachusetts. While we have spent decades instituting harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and countless dollars policing our streets, drug use has continued to rise and the effects in our communities have been detrimental. It is time that we rethink the way in which our judicial system responds to non-violent drug offenders.  

Massachusetts has made headway in recent years with action in the legislature to repeal and scale back mandatory minimum sentencing laws, but we can do better. If we are to solve this problem, it must be with smart policy and new ideas. It is time we began addressing addiction for what it really is, a medical emergency. We must do away with outdated drug sentencing laws, and explore treatment and rehabilitation options for non-violent drug offenders. 

 

It costs taxpayers over $47,000 annually to house an inmate in a Department of Corrections facility, and in 2013 Massachusetts prisons faced an overcrowding rate of 136%. These numbers matter, as many of those imprisoned are non-violent drug offenders. Upon release, these offenders are returned to environments where drug culture permeates, without the tools to overcome it. As a result, recidivism rates remain high. 

Treatment programs address the real issues with the drug problem in our communities: poverty, despair, lack of upward opportunity, the list goes on.  In treatment, both the personal and medical struggles of the individual are addressed, allowing them a fighting chance to change their life. The alternative is allowing the criminal justice system to put a convict label on those struggling with addiction, resulting in a lifetime condemnation, and a burden on the taxpayer from individuals who enter a permanent system of monitoring, stigmas, and difficulty in attaining financial independence. 

In a treatment program, individuals struggling with addiction can receive the help they need to overcome that addiction, and the resources to rebuild their lives. In other states, treatment programs can cost as low as $11,000 per individual, which is over $36,000 less than a year of incarceration. Studies also show a reduction in recidivism and crime rates when addicts are offered treatment as opposed to incarceration. 

Let me be clear, those who commit violent crimes, as well as drug dealers who fester insidiously in our neighborhoods preying upon the most vulnerable in our society, deserve to spend time behind bars. However, non-violent drug offenders, whose lives have been high-jacked by addiction, deserve help. It is time that we move away from the flawed policies that have failed our society in the past and led to the epidemic we are faced with today, and march forward into the future of treatment to cure our neighbors, friends, and family of this disease. We can no longer afford to sit idly by, we must act now. 

Melvin Edwards is a Springfield City Councilor and a candidate for State Representative in the 10th Hampden District.

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Melvin Edwards
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