Editorial: Diverting drug offenders to seek help, avoid jail

District Attorney Daniel F. Conley and BPD Commissioner William Evans announcing a new diversion pilot program that will begin in January at Dorchester District Court. Photo courtesy DA Conley’s office

Last week, Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley announced a promising new diversion program that will soon steer people arrested for simple drug possession into recovery services instead of criminal court. The program, dubbed Road to Recovery, will begin as a pilot here at the state’s busiest courthouse: the Dorchester Division of the Boston Municipal Court in Codman Square.

In teaming up with the Gavin Foundation, the program will also give Boston Police officers a new tool to deal with non-violent cases.

As Conley explained it: “Beginning next month, if members of the Boston Police find someone in simple possession of a controlled substance who presents no other apparent risk to public safety, they’ll assess that person for substance dependence or addiction. If the person meets some basic criteria, they won’t make an arrest. Instead, they’ll issue a summons for that person to appear in court.” There’ll be no long waits for a hearing date; the individuals will be expected in court the next day, “allowing us to strike while the iron is hot and there’s still an incentive to seek treatment,” said Conley.

Once they show up at the courthouse, they will meet with prosecutors who will offer them a chance to choose recovery services ranging from detox to counseling, all through the Gavin Foundation. If they agree, they get to skip an arraignment and deal with getting clean and sober.

“It won’t matter if it’s your first, second, or fifth straight possession offense,” Conley said. “If you want to get clean, we want to help. Participants will still have access to a lawyer if they wish, but because the program effectively replaces traditional prosecution, it should drive down the cost of public counsel and regular court dates. And if a participant successfully completes the treatment plan, he won’t just avoid a conviction – the case will never even be entered on a criminal record.”

The new program for adults is based on one that is already in place for juveniles. According to the DA’s office, it’s a very promising model. Since last May, about 45 teenagers have chosen services and each of them “has either completed the program successfully or is on track to do so.”

As Conley noted, many simple possession cases don’t ever result in convictions. They are frequently dismissed. But this program offers folks who need and want help a welcome new entry point.

Editor’s Note: With the Christmas holiday on Mon., Dec. 25, the Reporter’s deadline for ads and news for the edition of Thurs., Dec. 28, will be Fri., Dec. 22, at noon. - B.F.