Defendants on probation can be jailed for drug relapse, court rules

The top Massachusetts court unanimously ruled on Monday that a judge can require defendants with substance use disorders to remain drug-free as a condition of probation and send them to jail if they relapse.

The case, which challenged a requirement routinely imposed by judges across the country, had been closely watched by prosecutors, drug courts and addiction medicine specialists. For many, it represented a debate over the nature of addiction itself.

The defense argued that addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease that compromises an individual’s ability to abstain. The prosecution maintained that addiction varies in intensity and that many individuals have the ability to overcome it and can be influenced by institutional penalties and rewards, like incarceration or a cleared criminal record.

While acknowledging the numerous experts who weighed in on each side, the seven justices of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declined to take a stance in the debate. Instead, they said, the defendant in the case should have raised the issue when her probation condition was first imposed, when it could have been fully argued before a trial judge.

Jan Hoffman/New York Times