My DA’s office covers a territory in western Massachusetts that includes a large public university, four private colleges, and a well-regarded community college. That’s a lot of college students, with a select number entering the criminal justice system for the first time. That is why I am a big fan of prevention and early intervention. While conventional wisdom has it that the college years are the best of a person’s life, we all know it’s way more complicated than that. For many people, college years are filled with confusion, experimentation, and sometimes, bad decisions – even a series of them – that are fueled by substance misuse. As long as no harm comes to other people in the course of those poor decisions, many of them can and should be learning experiences – not life-altering catastrophes wherein ramifications follow someone for decades. When you get down to brass tacks, it’s easier to prevent a crime than to prosecute one.
|David E. Sullivan|
I firmly believe DA offices can be partners in prevention with colleges, universities, cities and towns, and community coalitions. The collaborative approach is effective, smart, and compassionate. It’s rooted in the relationship-building principles that are the hallmark of community policing. This means looking for the teachable moments and seizing those opportunities -- especially when it comes to young people. This is often the precise time when they are most open to learning.
On the prevention front, there is much that can be accomplished before disastrous decisions are made. First and foremost is taking concrete steps that can prevent addiction from taking hold in the first place. One key strategy is removing temptation through safe storage of medications and proper disposal when they are no longer needed. Since 2011, my office has worked with the Drug Enforcement Administration and community partners to organize and promote drug take back days and locked drop boxes in the community so people have options that allow them to remove medicines that are no longer in use from their medicine boxes. To date, we’ve collected and safely disposed of 50,000 pounds of unwanted medicine, keeping them out of our water sources and out of the hands of people dealing with substance misuse disorders.
We also work closely with community- and school-based substance misuse prevention coalitions to promote the use of drug lock boxes in people’s homes, because we know that more youth obtain prescription drugs from unknowing family members than purchase them from dealers on the streets or in their dorms.
We partnered with a local physician, a specialist in the addiction field, to make a video specifically geared to student-athletes and their parents to encourage them to be cautious when medicating for sports injuries and dental work. I’m tired of seeing young people become addicted to opioids after taking legitimately prescribed opioid pain medications for injuries when other methods might have worked just as well to relieve the pain.
Consent campaigns are another good example of prevention in action, and they are especially important on college campuses. This approach takes into account the context that first-year college students are living in: some of them are on their own for the first time, many are anxious and want to fit in, and some have never tried alcohol or other substances. This makes young people vulnerable to putting themselves in situations where they may do things that hurt others as well as themselves, actions they will later regret. A campus culture encouraging active bystanders can prevent these incidents.
With a federal grant received in 2012-2014, my office strengthened our collaborations with law enforcement and local colleges, particularly the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which, with a student body of 30,000 is a little city in our midst. We commissioned a media consultant to create a highly visible sexual assault prevention campaign focused on being positive active bystanders. This campaign featured public service announcements (PSAs) created with students across six colleges, themed posters on each campus, and a slew of bus ads that appeared on the free public transit system ferrying students around our region. The initiative received national recognition with an article in the Huffington Post and another in the New York Times. The PSAs continue to be used locally and by college campuses beyond our district. To view the PSAs, visit the Northwestern DA’s Office website at https://northwesternda.org/consent-difference-between-sex-and-rape-ending-sexual-assaults-campuses.
We believe the bystander intervention campaign pierced through what can be a natural phenomenon in which people feel there is nothing they can do to prevent sexual violence. Our ads suggested low-risk, low-threat intervention techniques that student bystanders can take when they notice two students who might be on the way to becoming so intoxicated that they can neither make good decisions nor give consent.
My office undertook another initiative in collaboration with the local district court that serves a large number of our college student population, as well as prevention and drug education professionals from UMass. We implemented a diversion program in which students facing non-violent, substance-related offenses were diverted from prosecution prior to being arraigned in court. We know that some college students when inebriated engage in what can be described as knucklehead behavior they wouldn’t dream of if they were sober. A student may also be in possession of a controlled substance, such as marijuana, hallucinogen, cocaine, or opioids that violate state laws. In such cases, it’s possible to respond in a way that holds them accountable and gives them needed treatment, but does not saddle them with a criminal record that might severely hurt their chances of future success.
The internet and the ease with which people can search job and graduate school applicants online raise the stakes for such arrests in a way that is simply, in many cases, out of proportion to the crime. I began thinking hard about the role diversion programs could play. It’s a bit of a cultural shift to create a new norm in which education, rather than arrest, may be the best option in some cases. This does not mean we don’t hold students or other young people accountable. In our pre-arraignment diversion program, students must complete a rigorous alcohol and drug education and awareness program, and in some cases make restitution or take part in a restorative justice resolution.
Another great concern I have is how to cultivate a campus culture in which binge drinking is not the norm. Without a doubt, binge drinking can have fatal consequences. Colleges are rightly concerned about this. My office participates in a campus-community coalition that works together on harm reduction strategies that we believe will save lives.
Another strategy I wholeheartedly support is to have colleges and universities link their code of conduct violations to off-campus as well as on-campus behavior so that there are reasonable consequences for off-campus criminal conduct. This approach helps students get back on track before it’s too late by encouraging community-based responsibility.
It’s important that everyone understand that colleges and universities are not islands -- and they should not be expected to try to address alone the cultural issues that can lead to student misbehavior. When communities come together to focus on prevention and early intervention, students thrive and college campuses are safer for everyone.
David E. Sullivan is district attorney for the Northwestern District of Massachusetts, which includes 47 cities and towns in Hampshire and Franklin counties and the Worcester county community of Athol. As DA, Mr. Sullivan has embraced a community prosecution model that blends smart and fair prosecutions, crime prevention, law enforcement partnerships, and community collaboration to build safer communities. In 2008, he was one of two Massachusetts lawyers chosen to receive the Massachusetts Bar Foundation’s President’s Award for “extraordinary volunteerism, leadership, and commitment to increasing access to justice in Massachusetts.