By Sean Fogler
I began using cocaine in the years after Sept. 11, 2001, when I climbed a fence at the tip of Manhattan and almost jumped into the river to escape what had become a war zone.
That horrific experience layered trauma atop my unaddressed pain from an abusive childhood. Cocaine helped me dissociate, and with that chemical assistance I was able to become a successful doctor. By 2015, however, I realized I had a problem and went voluntarily into treatment—but by then my behavior had caught attention from law enforcement. Almost a year and a half into recovery I was arrested, prosecuted, and placed on probation.
Today I am the co-founder of a public health group that helps law enforcement and other criminal punishment agencies better understand and address substance use disorder. In this capacity I regularly explain that drugs themselves are not the problem, but rather a solution to relieve stress, pain, and trauma. (Anyone who enjoys an adult beverage after a hard day might relate.)
This means that responding effectively to substance use in our communities requires treating the underlying crises in people’s lives, rather than simply meting out punishment. And the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing has just taken a step in the right direction.
The reason our correctional system is so bloated is due in large part to technical violations, in which individuals break a rule or condition of their probation without committing a new crime and are sent to jail or otherwise disciplined as a result. One of the most common technical violations is a positive drug test.
Rather than incarcerating people on probation who test positive for substance use, the new guidelines will recommend an array of evidence-based options including therapy, addiction treatment, peer support, and more. Some counties have already begun implementing this change, and early signs suggest positive results.
People on probation are more likely to show up for supervisory appointments, and to be open and honest when they do, if they’re not afraid of a drug screen. I vividly remember fearing those appointments.
With the new change, people like me will be able to tell their probation officer that they used a substance, and that officer can respond by asking, “How can I help you stay on track?”
This represents an enormous shift in a system that has been destructively punitive—and it’s a major win for law enforcement personnel as well.
When I’m invited to training probation officers and other stakeholders in the criminal punishment system, the thing I hear most often is that officers want people to trust them. The new guidelines pave the way for more trusting relationships, in which officers can provide genuine assistance and are more likely to make a positive difference in people’s lives—and to experience greater satisfaction in their careers, as they see more of their clients fully return to civil society.
This is promising, but it’s not enough.
The new guidelines are just that: guidelines. Judges, prosecutors, as well as probation and parole officers will retain the power to ignore the new recommendations and pursue more punishing measures instead. That’s why the new guidelines should be written into our state statute, so that the law codifies a more evidence-based approach to supervision in what is meant to be our collective system of rehabilitation.
Sean Fogler is a physician living in long-term recovery, co-founder of Elevyst, a public health consulting group, and co-chair of the Health Justice for Pennsylvania Coalition.
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