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First Prison Sentence Assigned for Mother of Drug-Dependent Baby Under New Tennessee Abuse Law
A law in Tennessee that can send mothers to prison for giving birth to a drug-dependent baby has claimed its first victim. Jamillah Falls, a 30-year-old heroin addict, is now in jail and her infant daughter is a ward of the state.
Falls was arrested a week after giving birth to a heroin-dependent baby boy. Knowing that hospitals are required to report drug-dependent newborns to the child protective services and fearful the cops would soon arrest her, Falls left her newborn baby in the hospital nursery and went into hiding. But after a week or so she turned herself in and confessed to having used heroin during pregnancy – as recently as two days before delivery. To avoid jail time, Falls chose a treatment program as authorized under the law.
After detox, Falls then entered a month of rehab, followed by a required stay at a half-way house. According to Judge Andrew Dwyer, Falls must follow her recovery regime for 18 months and attend four meetings a week – two at the drug court and two in a 12-step program. Judge Dwyer said that unless she relapses or refuses to comply, he will drop the assault charge when her time is up. A single misstep means four years in prison and the permanent loss of her child.
But Falls was unable to meet the requirements for the halfway house, and she has asked for jail time. The judge apparently relented and sentenced her to only six months in prison, minus 47 days of jail credit.
Since Tennessee enacted statute SB 1391 last July as an amendment to the state’s “fetal homicide law,” at least nine women have been charged. Under the amendment, a woman can be charged with “assault for using an illicit narcotic while pregnant if her child is born dependent to or harmed by the narcotic drug and the addiction or harm is a result of her illegal use of a narcotic drug taken while pregnant, or for criminal homicide if her child dies as a result of her illegal use of a narcotic drug taken while pregnant.”
The statute also states that it’s “an affirmative defense … that the woman actively enrolled in an addiction recovery program before the child is born, remained in the program after delivery, and successfully completed the program, regardless of whether the child was born addicted to or harmed by the narcotic drug.”
(Police and prosecutors interpret the word “narcotic” to mean any illicit drug, not just narcotics, hence arrests for drugs such as methamphetamines which are not narcotics.)
Those found guilty can be sentenced to jail or can accept treatment followed by several months of post rehab in a half-way house. Failure to complete all the assigned treatment can result in jail time. The idea is that women expecting to be arrested will be more than willing to ask for treatment instead of jail time.
The first woman in Tennessee to be arrested under the new law was 26-year-old Mallory Loyola. She was charged a couple of days after giving birth to a baby girl who tested positive for methamphetamine. Loyola admitted to authorities that she’d smoked meth just 3 or 4 days before giving birth. She was able to avoid jail time by opting for treatment and probation.
As for the first woman to receive actual jail time, Janellah Falls was “forced back into jail because of poverty. She couldn’t find a job and meet the standards at the halfway house, all while trying to learn a new lifestyle away from drugs,” says Cherisse Scott, a spokesman for Sister Reach, a local Memphis advocacy group. “Babies need protection, but their moms need help, not handcuffs.”
Scott told WREG Channel 3 in Memphis that “drug addiction is an illness. To try and treat it through the legal system is inappropriate.” Scott says she’s not happy with the law, especially in cases like Janellah Falls when women can’t possibly be expected to make the grade in treatment because of their life situation and so are forced to go to prison without treatment.
“She’s not going to get any care in prison, so what’s supposed to happen to her now?” Scott asked. “Many of these women don’t have the resources and a support system to perhaps get the help that they need. It’s something that satisfied lawmakers, but doesn’t support Tennessee families.”
Falls didn’t plan to get pregnant, according to those who knew her, and she’s been struggling with addiction for years. She has not seen her son since July, who at last report was still in the custody of child services.
On the flip side, state lawmakers are confident that the new law will reduce the infant drug-abuse problem in the state though the constant threat of jail time. The official position also includes what appears to be turning a blind eye to an enormous shortage of treatment services that accept low-income cases. And of course, every one of the arrests made since the new law took effect has been just that.
One official, Davidson County prosecutor Brian Holmgren, who is devoted to child-welfare cases, summed up the state’s attitude rather succinctly to Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly. Holmgren says that Tennessee passed the law for one simple reason: “Drug users are not good parents.”
And Detective Wes Martin, who arrested the first woman charged under SB 1391, Mallory Loyola, told The Nation recently that the law is a scare tactic. In effect, the law is saying, “We’ve had enough of it, we’re going to do something about it, and if you don’t want your name in the paper, we suggest you get your life straight.”
According to the report in The Nation, the nine women arrested so far under the law “are a fraction of the number who have given birth to babies with drugs in their system in Tennessee.” The magazine says that according to the state’s Department of Health there have been at least 874 births in Tennessee this year of infants suffering from Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS).
No one in authority has attempted to explain why nearly all the women arrested represent some of the state’s poorest areas, all but one requiring a public defender. Or why Memphis, which only accounted for 4 percent of all the NAS births in the state, accounted for two-thirds of the women arrested under the new law.
Only time will tell whether or not Tennessee’s new law will have any positive effects on lowering addiction and NAS births in the state. One can’t imagine it accomplishing much if only 9 arrests are made, mostly from one city, of the hundreds of cases of dependent newborns.
Here at Novus, we favor early and effective medically supervised detox and treatment rather than tossing someone into jail. The key words here are ‘early’, ‘effective’ and ‘medically supervised’. It’s far better, and we’re sure you’ll agree, to treat addiction earlier, rather than later when the situation has become more difficult and complex.
At Novus, all our patients receive the most advanced and effective medically supervised treatment, for the most comfortable and complete detox available anywhere. Don’t hesitate to call us anytime. We’ll answer your questions and help you begin your journey to recovery.
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