External Policy Studies Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties

Changing Police Norms

*This article was peer reviewed by professionals who are subject matter experts in the field of police diversion. Reviewers include: Nixon Camilien, PhD, Jac A. Charlier, Elizabeth Sinclair, and Charl Allyson Wellener. 

On September 15 , 2015 , Debra Silvestri tested positive for alcohol during a routine evaluation at the drug court in Lowell, Massachusetts. Shortly afterwards, she collapsed in the courtroom, and was pronounced dead later that day at the Lowell General Hospital. A medical examiner ruled her death a suicide.

The mother of three had long struggled with addiction, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, and had been imprisoned in 2012 for drunk driving. On the day she tested positive, Silvestri had already been com- ing to the drug court on a weekly basis for over a year as a condition of her probation. While these evaluations were meant to be a compassionate alternative to incarceration, the weekly threat of being sent back to jail, along with an array of court-ordered requirements, left Silvestri feeling overwhelmed; she often told family members that she couldn’t “take it anymore.” Her death garnered national attention, and many argued that the Lowell drug court unjustly criminalized addiction and mental illness.

In hindsight, it is difficult to conclude that Silvestri belonged in Lowell’s drug-court system; if she had instead been treated by people who could make sense of her conditions and treat her accordingly, her death could have been prevented. While the drug court in Lowell was in principle designed to divert people with substance-abuse problems from prison, no one operating within it seemed to properly take Silvestri’s mental illness into account. Police and probation officers rarely asked Silvestri about her mental well-being, focusing instead on administering random alcohol tests and encouraging her to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Before judges in the courtroom, Silvestri was not in a position to speak honestly about her struggles; in that context, she was primarily viewed as a past offender at risk of re-offending, and she felt compelled to demonstrate that she was recovering successfully. It was only after Silvestri’s fatal public overdose that she was seen as a victim who suffered from a vicious combination of mental illness and alcoholism.

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