Panel Backs Ballot Question 8 to Boost Drug Treatment Option

Worcester Telegram & Gazette, 28 Sept. 2000

A ballot question that would allow treatment instead of incarceration for some drug offenders got a sympathetic hearing at a forum last night.

Question 8 would permit judges to allow certain first- and second-time drug users and sellers, and some cocaine traffickers into treatment programs. Subsequently the charges would be dismissed instead of the offender being sent to jail.

It also would make it easier for defendants to get back forfeited property and would divert the proceeds of seized assets from law enforcement agencies to a trust fund for drug treatment programs.

One of the organizers of the forum held at the YWCA, the Worcester Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, favors the ballot question. But the other sponsor, Sheriff John M. Flynn, opposes it, according to his son, Jail Capt. John Flynn.

The sheriff favors drug treatment and his department operates such programs inside the jail as well as outside the jail for prisoners and people on probation. But, for technical reasons -- the way the question is worded -- Capt. Flynn said, the sheriff does not favor Question 8, which will be on the Nov. 7 ballot.

The ballot question has the support of the Republican candidate for the 2nd Worcester District Senate seat. Donald Chip'' Davis (SEE CORRECTION) said that over the past decade we've seen the heavy-handed approach and we've been able to see that's not working.''

Low-level offenders should not be treated the same as hardened felons, Mr. Davis said, and Question 8 gives judges the discretion to decide which is which. Margaret Campbell, a registered nurse, and others said they are disappointed that other political candidates did not accept the ACLU's invitation to attend.

The state's 11 district attorney's have asked the Supreme Judicial Court to invalidate the question. They also argue that it would deprive law enforcement of the tools to eradicate drug offenses.

William T. Breault of the Main South Alliance for Public Safety said that the proposal's advocates are unable to point to a single instance of an inappropriate property forfeiture in a Massachusetts drug case. He also said that the ballot advocates are funded with $750,000 in out-of-state contributions but only $950 from Massachusetts residents.

Ronal C. Madnick, executive director of the ACLU Worcester chapter, said tens of thousands of Bay State residents signed the petition to get the question on the ballot. By erasing low-level drug offenses from an offender's record, the proposal would make it easier for those who successfully complete drug treatment to get jobs, making it less likely they would commit new offenses, he said.

Erica Perl, a former public defender, recalled numerous instances of judges saying they would like to have sent her former clients to drug treatment instead of jail, as the law required.

By Lee Hammel

© 2000, Boston Globe