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People in jail who get addiction medication less likely to re-offend, study says

Buprenorphine, better known by the brand name Suboxone, helps people with opioid addiction stay in recovery. But it is prescribed far more often to white drug users.
Craig F. Walker
Connecticut Public
Buprenorphine, better known by the brand name Suboxone, helps people with opioid addiction stay in recovery. But it is prescribed far more often to white drug users.

People in jail who get medication for addiction are less likely to offend again, according to a new study based in western Massachusetts.

In 2015, researchers from UMass Amherst and Baystate Medical Center monitored about 200 people released from Franklin County's jail, which had started giving out buprenorphine, a medication that reduces opioid cravings.

They also followed about 270 people from Hampshire County's jail, which had not yet started the medication.

People who got medication in jail were about 30% less likely to re-offend within a year, the study found.

“People are shoplifting or stealing to support their habits and that kind of behavior dramatically decreased,” said study co-author Peter Friedmann of Baystate and UMass Medical Center.

Study co-author Elizabeth Evans, a public health professor at UMass Amherst, said the results suggest the community is safer when jails offer addiction treatment.

“It becomes a reason to consider when we think about how could the criminal justice system at large be a part of helping to resolve the opioid epidemic,” she said.

Evans said today all the jails in western Massachusetts — and most in Massachusetts — offer buprenorphine

Evans and Friedmann acknowledged that it's critical for people to be linked to community health providers after they are released from jail so they can continue with medication-assisted treatment. Friedmann has his own medical practice prescribing buprenorphine and he said former inmates are a large part of his clientele.

The study only followed people for one year after their release from jail.

"If we were able to follow these folks long term, we probably would see some folks who decided to come off their medication and and had recurrent use,” Friedmann said. “So the effects wouldn't be quite so dramatic. But certainly this suggests that ... jail is sort of an effective way to get people started down the road to recovery."

Friedmann said ongoing research is focusing on the effects of the pandemic on opioid use after jail.

Although the overall overdose rate has gone up since the pandemic started, Friedmann said there's no reason to believe the positive effects of medication-assisted treatment have changed.

The study was published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

Copyright 2022 New England Public Media. To see more, visit New England Public Media.

Karen is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter since for New England Public Radio since 1998. Her pieces have won a number of national awards, including the National Edward R. Murrow Award, Public Radio News Directors, Inc. (PRNDI) Award, and the Erikson Prize for Mental Health Reporting for her body of work on mental illness.

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