Senate votes to repeal driver’s license suspension law

25 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Bill calls for student screenings in schools to curb drug abuse.

Mandatory screening of middle and high school students for potentially risky drug behavior is among key provisions of a bill now being finalized by Massachusetts Senate leaders. The state Senate is expected to vote next week on a bill that would require all public school districts in Massachusetts to screen seventh and 10th graders for potential drug use, with an eye toward stemming the scourge of opioid abuse at an early stage.BOSTON (AP) — BOSTON (AP) — Convicted drug offenders would no longer have their driver’s licenses automatically suspended, under a bill the Massachusetts Senate unanimously approved Thursday.STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, SEPT. 24, 2015….The “big three” leaders on Beacon Hill are unanimous in their support for taking some type of action to address the rise of opioid addiction and related deaths in Massachusetts, but it will be the Senate that takes the first crack at a new menu of options to strengthen prevention and education. The legislation represents the latest effort at the state level to reverse an alarming trend: State health officials estimate more than 1,250 people died from opioid-related overdoses in 2014, compared to 939 deaths in 2013.

Senators said the law has become a serious impediment for ex-offenders hoping to rebuild their lives — making it difficult for them to get to work, drop off children at daycare, or attend drug treatment programs. “We need to help, rather than create obstacles, for people trying to return to a normal and an independent life,” said state Senator Harriette L. State law currently requires mandatory suspension of a person’s driver’s license for up to five years when that person is convicted of a drug crime, even if the violation was unrelated to driving.

Nearly nine months into a session where drug treatment was identified early on as a priority, Senate leaders are planning a vote for next Thursday on a comprehensive opioid addiction prevention bill that is expected, among other things, to require schools to screen students for signs of addiction, encourage alternatives to opioids for pain management, and allow patients to limit their own access to the addictive drugs. “We’re really trying to put forth a robust piece of legislation that we’re hoping is going to make a direct impact to not only those who are actively using, but those who have yet to touch a substance and that we hope never, never do,” said Sen. Flanagan (D-Leominster). “The screener is able to identify possibly risky behaviors so you’ll be able to tell if there’s a problem, or if there’s no problem.” Schools would be called on to appoint one or more qualified staffers to receive training in what is called Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment, or SBIRT. Rather, the screener — who could be a school nurse or psychologist trained in speaking to kids about drug use — would determine through a conversation if the student was engaged in risky behavior, according to a Senate briefing for reporters on the proposal.

Under the proposal, doctors and health insurers would be encouraged to embrace pain management strategies that rely less heavily on or do not include opiate medications. Supporters of the bill say the existing law only makes it harder for offenders to keep their jobs and care for their families after they’ve served their sentences. The bill would have no effect on license suspension penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, and only removes the outdated state requirement that penalizes every drug offense with a license suspension, even for non-driving offenses.

They are not being urine tested for drugs, there are no criminal ramifications that come from this,” said Flanagan, D-Leominster, who along with Sen. It will also allow anyone previously subject to this provision to have their license reinstated without a fee. “Our state’s license suspension policy is ineffective and stands in the way of successful reentry and rehabilitation,” said Sen.

Why wouldn’t we ask the questions?’ ” The committee selected the grades that would be screened based on their feelings about when addiction may take hold, not any scientific studies or medical advice, Flanagan said. Lawmakers are also weighing a repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and changes to a cash bail system thought to disadvantage low-income defendants.

This bill is smart on crime, considers public safety concerns and helps those with prior involvement in our criminal justice system rebuild their lives.” This can be used as a “back door CORI” check, where employers purchase Registry records for the purpose of obtaining information about criminal records, even if they would normally be sealed, expunged, or shielded by CORI reform. Earlier this month, the committee issued recommendations that were packaged into a bill (S 2010) currently being reviewed by Senate counsel and the Senate Ways and Means Committee. But the driver’s license change has attracted wide support, with Attorney General Maura Healey, the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, and sheriffs all over the state joining defense lawyers and advocates for ex-offenders in calling for repeal. Worcester Democrat Harriette Chandler, the legislation’s main sponsor, portrayed the current law as a failed tough-on-crime throwback that ultimately does more harm than good. Former governor Michael Dukakis signed the suspension measure into law in 1989, at the height of the tough-on-crime era, saying he wanted to crack down on “neighborhood drug dealers who cruise the area looking for business and avoiding police.” Supporters, at the time, also suggested the penalty could serve as a deterrent to drug use.

If an assessment was made that a student was using opiates or at risk of doing so, the student would be offered treatment, lawmakers said. “We’ve been finding that more and more families didn’t know what was going on during the teen years and are finding out when they are 20 that they are full-blown heroin addicts,” she said. The state suspended licenses for 5,431 people convicted of drug crimes last year, the length of the suspension varying with the severity of the offense. Doctors would be asked to consider alternative pain management treatments and document reasons why they decided to prescribe certain “high-risk” medications. Flanagan said a lot of young people have said to her and her colleagues: “If someone had asked, if someone had known, if I had a chance to say, ‘I needed help,’ ” it might have diverted them from the path of addiction.

Patients, including recovering addicts, could also opt to have a note placed in their medical records that they do not want opioid-based drugs prescribed to them under any circumstances. “If they have that prescription in their hands and they are in recovery, it’s like waving a chocolate chip cookie in front of me, it’s difficult to resist,” said Keenan. Hadley Public Schools began a pilot program last year, training its nurses and counselors in the screening methods and applying them to 10th-grade students, said Renee Denenfeld, nurse leader for the school district. Baker was also expected to file legislation shortly after receiving dozens of recommendations earlier this year from an opioids task force in the areas of prevention, education, intervention, treatment and recovery.

Baker has said he intends to file additional legislation this fall, and Senate leaders said they would be open to considering the governor’s recommendations as the bill moves through the process. A Worcester advocacy group, Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Advocating for Community Advancement, has run the campaign for repeal out of a ramshackle house in the city’s scruffy Main South neighborhood. Delia Vega, a community organizer with the group who once had her own driver’s license suspended under the law, said she “got the chills” sitting in the Senate gallery Thursday when the repeal passed.

Instead, Healey said, suspending licenses has prevented people from getting to work, getting to the grocery store, picking their children up from school and taking their parents or other family members to medical appointments. “This bill removes an unnecessary barrier to employment and new opportunities, and it’s an important step toward smart and fair criminal justice reform,” Healey said Thursday after the bill passed the Senate. John Keenan, a Quincy Democrat and vice-chair of the special Senate committee, expect the final bill to be released Friday to largely reflect the work of their committee.

While the screenings would become part of the mandatory health checks school are required to perform, along with vision and hearing, students or parents could decline participation. Flanagan said the hope is to expand the use of SBIRT screening from 10 schools to 440 districts across the state with additional funding to be included in a supplemental budget later this fall. “To make it very clear, it is not a drug test,” Flanagan said, explaining that parents would not be immediately notified of results and there would be no criminal or disciplinary repercussions. Responding to a general question about drug screenings at middle schools and high schools, DeLeo, a Democrat, indicated that the Legislature would have to look at potential constitutional concerns vis-a-vis students’ rights. Charlie Baker has already voiced skepticism toward the drug screening idea, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he worried it could raise constitutional concerns. Even amid uncertainty over the fate of the legislation in the House — and the fate of the broader push for a criminal justice overhaul — lawmakers pressing for change declared the Senate action Thursday a sign of momentum. “This is a really important first step,” said Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, “a down payment, by the Senate, on a more comprehensive criminal justice package.”

Insurance companies would also be required to work with physicians, as part of their accreditation, to understand other pain management alternatives such as chiropractors, physical therapy or acupuncture.

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