Massachusetts Leading The Charge For Giving Drug-Addicted Mothers Treatment Over Prison

By McCarton Ackerman 01/20/16

Massachusetts is now one of 32 states to offer treatment to addicted mothers who are non-violent offenders.


Massachusetts is now at the forefront of a growing number of states who are steering drug-addicted mothers facing criminal charges into intensive drug treatment programs and away from jail, already resulting in positive changes in a short period of time.

Women have become the fastest growing group throughout New England heading to jail or prison. Because a large percentage of these women are either new mothers or currently pregnant, the repercussions for these children and families can be devastating. Gov. Charlie Baker declared last year that mothers and pregnant women need “specialized care” and that treatment centers throughout the state make pregnant women a priority.

“The courts were not so involved with treatment as they were with, let’s say, punishment in a sense,” said Donna McDade, director of the Edwina Martin House in Brockton. “And thankfully that’s turned around, and it’s really a positive now and we work very well together.”

Massachusetts is now one of 32 states to offer “family-based treatment” to addicted mothers who are non-violent offenders, enabling them to either live with their kids at a designated site or see them regularly while receiving treatment. With the state adding five drug courts in the last two years, bringing the total number to 18, more mothers are being referred to residential drug treatment homes instead of prison. The Massachusetts Sentencing Commission reported that between 2012 and 2013, the number of women who were incarcerated dropped 4% to 1,625.

“I got a beautiful second chance to be a mother to my son,” said Duggan, now 26, who gave birth to her second son in a residential drug treatment center while under correction department custody. “I had to learn to be responsible, be available today. Because I wasn’t available before.”

There are also economic reasons for encouraging drug treatment over prison. A four-to-six month stay at the Edwina Martin House in Brockton costs between $12,000 and $18,000, while the women’s prison at Framingham spends $20,000 to $30,000 to house an inmate for that same time period.

McDade readily admits that treatment centers and halfway homes are not a surefire method for overcoming addiction. But with a 48% program completion home at the Edwina Martin House, compared to a state average of 31% completion, the chances of success are far greater than in spending time behind bars.

“Many of us, and I am one of them, firmly believe that you cannot just lock people up and incarcerate them and expect their substance abuse issues to go away. It’s just not working anymore,” said District Court Justice Mary Heffernan, who runs two drug courts. “You have to put the resources into treatment.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.