Criminalizing addiction

CNN has a story about the dilemma of pregnant mothers who are addicted, spotlight on South Carolina – of course, the only state supreme court to uphold the prosecution of pregnant addicts for the damage done to their babies by drug use.

South Carolina’s state supreme court is alone in upholding the prosecution of pregnant women for the damage drugs might do to their unborn children.
Across the country, local and state agencies have found ways to prosecute pregnant women for drug use, but the cases are often rejected by the courts. And judges in more than two dozen states have overturned decisions that criminalize pregnant addicts. In recent years, Missouri and North Dakota have ruled against charging pregnant women with neglect and endangerment.

The article says that since 1989 at least 126 women have been arrested in South Carolina for using drugs during their pregnancy. It’s a problem that was brought to the public’s attention again during Regina McKnight’s prosecution – Regina was charged with homicide by child abuse after cocaine was found in her system when her baby was stillborn. Her trial resulted in a mistrial, she was tried a second time and found guilty in 2001, lost on direct appeal, but her conviction was overturned last year on PCR based on her trial attorney’s failure to retain an expert to testify at her second trial.
From an earlier post:

The prosecution of mothers who test positive for cocaine has been fraught with problems and controversial from the beginning. The idea of a pregnant woman using cocaine is offensive and the knee jerk response is that there is no doubt this is child abuse. But this view ignores the nature of cocaine addiction. Cocaine addiction is powerful enough that many who are addicted cannot make a conscious decision to stop using. When a person is under a compulsion to continue using drugs, there is no intent to harm the child – there is no “conscious act of disregarding a risk which a person’s conduct has created.” State v. McKnight (2003).
Prosecution of pregnant women who are addicted to drugs is counterproductive, and it is not a deterrence. It discourages addicted women who discover they are pregnant from seeking help. It discourages them from seeking prenatal care at hospitals or treatment for their addiction, for fear they will be arrested and prosecuted. It creates an incentive for women to seek abortions, to avoid detection and prosecution.
It would make more sense to make it known that if an addicted and pregnant woman comes to a hospital for help, they will receive not only prenatal care but confidential referrals to treatment programs. It makes sense to invest more resources in long-term treatment programs that are equipped to deal with the specialized needs of pregnant women, and women with very young children.
It is always a popular political move to prosecute and punish any given class of “criminal.” Treatment, prevention, understanding, compassion does not win votes.

When we are the only state in the country to allow the prosecution of these women, that alone should tell our supreme court and our legislature something is wrong here.
“These are addicts who become pregnant,” says Lynn Paltrow, executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women. “They aren’t women who chose to use drugs after becoming pregnant.”

One Response to “Criminalizing addiction

  • I totally agree that to proscute a pregnant woman who is addicted to drugs is counter productive. Get her to a successful rehab program, one that is longer term and will give her life skills so she will be a productive member of society and a good parent.

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