Task force urges overhaul of state’s drug policies; shift could save millions

Issue July/August 2009 By Jennifer Rosinski

Massachusetts must enact meaningful drug reform for nonviolent offenders, focusing on education and treatment instead of incarceration and punishment, according to a report of the Massachusetts Bar Association's Drug Policy Task Force released June 18 at the Statehouse. Mandatory minimum sentencing reform and diversion to treatment could alone save the state more than $25 million a year.

"This comprehensive report has identified many ways in which our drug policy in Massachusetts needs repair," said David W. White Jr., MBA past president and chair of the MBA Drug Policy Task Force. "These are problems that we cannot afford to ignore. We have made several recommendations which will reduce the rate of crime, which will save the taxpayers money and which will help rebuild families and communities."

Converting from criminal prosecution of nonviolent drug offenders to treatment of their addictions is the overall message of the report, "The Failure of the War on Drugs: Charting a New Course for the Commonwealth."

A product of more than one year of research and consideration, the report was created by a task force of nearly three dozen prominent leaders, including lawyers, law enforcement officials, the judiciary, mental health professionals, physicians, social workers and public policy advocates.

The report's recommendations would result in substantial savings. Specifically, diverting nonviolent drug possession offenders to treatment instead of incarceration could save $8 million in annual costs. An additional $17 million in annual savings could be realized through mandatory minimum sentencing reform, including parole after two-thirds of a sentence is served in state prison and parole after one-half of a sentence is served in county correctional facilities.

The task force has called on Gov. Deval Patrick and the Legislature to implement recommendations for both the short and long term.