Despite everything that has been done to address our opiate crisis, we had record overdoses and deaths in Massachusetts last year. We’re not getting better; we’re getting worse. Yet despite the enormous role our court system plays in the opiate crisis, it has somehow remained unscathed in the blame game.

Half the people in state prisons nationwide meet the criteria for a substance use disorder, with 65% of people arrested reporting drug use in the month before they were arrested. People involved with drugs often wind up in our court system, a place where — at its best — we help people put their lives back on track. Sadly, at its worst, we make everything harder.

I’m a public defender. I have represented countless defendants involved in the judicial system due to a substance use disorder. Trust me, no one wants to live their life that way. Without exception, they know they need help and want to get it. But far too often, people with substance use disorder are put on probation and — as is often the case during recovery — they relapse. The reasons for relapse are always strikingly similar: their ability to fight addiction has been severely hampered, a loved one has died, a relationship has ended, they have been unable to maintain steady employment and have lost their homes. The pain and cravings are too much, and they relapse.

It's an emotional issue, but an essential piece of the answer lies in science. In the past two years, everyone in Massachusetts has heard or uttered a variation of the phrase “trust the science.” This mantra helped inform our COVID-19 response and protect the most vulnerable members of our community. In combating one of the greatest public health crises of our time, we turned to scientists and experts on how we could come together and overcome COVID-19.

But the same cannot be said for the opioid public health crisis that is ravaging communities all over our commonwealth. Since 2010, more than 18,000 people have died from opioids in Massachusetts, with 2021 having the highest ever number of opioid deaths in our state’s history. This is more than double the national average and yet, many of our judges and policymakers are refusing to follow the science of addiction and work to support recovery. This failing is more is than anecdotal. U.S. Attorney Rachel Rollins filed a lawsuit against our trial courts because some judges in our drug courts were prohibiting defendants from taking physician-prescribed medication like Vivitrol and Suboxone, medications we know can significantly assist in recovery from substance use disorder. After the suit was filed, a new policy was implemented which bars drug court personnel from interfering with prescribed treatment plans.

But not everyone with a substance use disorder in our court system is heard by a drug court. Probationers who relapse are often taken into custody. It's expensive, it doesn't work, and it can make recovery harder. Recovering from an opioid addiction or alcohol use disorder isn’t as simple as cutting back on caffeine; it is a very difficult and painful process that requires care and empathy.

We must make sure our judges and Parole Board members understand the science of addiction and work to support recovery. When I work with a client struggling with a substance use disorder, I see my sister. Eva was an extraordinarily talented artist and loving mother who had long periods of brilliant, extraordinary artistic and personal achievement. But she also suffered from an alcohol use disorder. When she relapsed, the pain for her and all of us who loved her was unbearable. She passed away almost two years ago. I can only imagine how much worse it would have been if, because of relapse, she had been punished with incarceration. I know with absolute certainty that, as bad as relapse was, that would only have made her heroic work for her recovery harder.

It’s time for Massachusetts to apply “follow the science” for all of our public health crises, not just the ones with easy-to-understand recommendations, like getting vaccines and wearing a mask. Every single person in this state can be healthy and addiction free, and their families and loved ones deserve that too. It’s time to stop getting worse, and start getting better. It’s time for everyone to be held accountable, including our courts.

Mara Dolan is a candidate for Governor’s Council in the 3rd District.