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Elected officials join doctors and advocates pushing back against plan for addiction treatment at Suffolk County jail 

"Public health and incarceration do not go hand-in-hand. They are opposites. They are separate. They do not work together.”

Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo spoke Wednesday during a press conference organized by the ACLU of Massachusetts. Pat Greenhouse / The Boston Globe

The pushback against a plan to open a virtual courtroom at the South Bay correctional campus where unhoused individuals from Mass. and Cass could be sent and committed for addiction treatment at the facility grew louder on Wednesday as elected officials joined calls from doctors and advocates condemning the proposal.

Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins first put forward the idea for tackling the growing crises of homelessness, addiction, and mental health in September, and despite concerns that have repeatedly been raised by public health leaders and addiction doctors, the effort has continued to press on.

The Massachusetts Trial Court is currently working with the sheriff’s office, the state’s probation service, clerk’s office, Suffolk district attorney’s office, and Committee for Public Counsel Services on implementing a “temporary remote virtual court session” as soon as next week, Jennifer Donahue, a Trial Court spokesperson, said in a statement.

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“Cases for this session would be heard virtually,” she said. “We are still working through logistics and issues related to the session.”

Tompkins told WBUR earlier this week that under his proposal, people living at Mass. and Cass with outstanding warrants would be brought to the jail and processed in what he is calling a “stabilization court.” He said that participants would not be involuntarily committed, telling the radio station that during the virtual court session, individuals would not be sent to the onsite facility under the state law that allows for involuntary commitments for addiction treatments, known as Section 35. He said people would be offered voluntary treatment instead of harsher penalties.

But once brought into the facility, people would not be permitted to leave and could be kept in the correctional facility for up to 90 days as the Section 35 law dictates, according to WBUR.

The plan was roundly criticized Wednesday afternoon during a press conference by a coalition of doctors working in addiction medicine, researchers, advocates, and elected officials, who also called on Boston officials to halt moves to disperse the encampments.

“Effective interventions for these issues exist, but they do not include displacing community members without meaningful and safer places to voluntarily go,” Dr. Sarah Wakeman, the medical director for the Mass General Hospital Substance Use Disorder Initiative, said. “And they don’t include compulsory detention in jail-based facilities. Compulsory addiction treatment is less effective than voluntary treatment. Concerning data shows higher rates of fatal overdose after involuntary treatment. It violates the autonomy and trust of the very people we should be trying to serve, and correctional settings are not where we should be siting medical and addiction treatment services.”

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Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who chairs the council’s public health committee, said that “every dollar and every resource” being used to put individuals struggling with addiction or homelessness through the court system should instead be funneled into community and public health initiatives that are known to work.

“We know that criminalizing addiction, criminalizing mental health, criminalizing poverty does not work,” he said. “It has never worked. We have decades of evidence, decades of data that show that it actually causes more harm. That it doesn’t reach or make or solve any of the things that we want to see for individuals that are currently undergoing mental health difficulties, substance use difficulties, and houselessness.

“And so if we are to properly do this, if we are to actually do this in a way that is effective and in a way that meets the needs of these individuals, we have to do that with a public health focus,” he continued. “And public health and incarceration do not go hand-in-hand. They are opposites. They are separate. They do not work together.”

Recalling his former experience working as a public defender with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, Arroyo shared that he lost several clients to fatal overdoses.

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“I carry those losses with me even now,” he said. “It is a difficult thing. And both of those situations were caused by sectioning.”

The solution can’t be to cast judgment on individuals and put them in prison cells, but to provide housing and care, he said.

The city councilor called on Boston officials to follow the advice and insight of doctors and public health professionals, urging leaders not to criminalize poverty and addiction.

“The systems that were put in place to criminalize this, to put people in jail, are still in existence,” he said. “And they’re the easiest, lowest hanging fruit. And what I am asking people to do is to put those resources and to recreate a system where we focus on public health, where we create actual pathways that don’t involve police cruisers and jail cells, so that we can actually get to the root of these causes. Because we know that incarceration will not do that.”

State Rep. Ruth Balser, whose district includes Newton and who also serves on the Legislature’s Section 35 Commission, said Massachusetts is the only state in the country that allows people to be involuntarily committed to treatment programs in criminal justice facilities, rather than health care settings.

“Apparently Massachusetts stands alone in not yet recognizing that addiction is an illness, it is not a crime,” she said.

The state legislator, who is also a clinical psychologist, reminded attendees at the press conference that Massachusetts has taken steps to stop sending people to programs in prisons or jails, starting with prohibiting sending women under Section 35 to treatment programs run in criminal justice settings.

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She said Tompkins wants to move the state in the “wrong direction” on involuntary commitment.

“We have a sheriff who wants to move us in the wrong direction,” she said. 

Balser also took aim at statements made by the sheriff and other officials that “everything has to be on the table” for addressing the situation at Mass. and Cass.

“I’m here to say that there’s one thing that’s got to be off the table — and that’s incarcerating people who are sick,” she said. “If we found out that there was a shortage of cardiac beds, would we say let’s send everyone with heart disease to a prison? Of course not … Let’s put some of the greatest minds in health care and the world together and figure out how to offer health care to people with illnesses and how to make sure people have housing.”

Tompkins told the Boston Herald that he’s happy that the coalition and ACLU is getting involved in the discussions around Mass. and Cass, suggesting that “both sides of the equation can come together.”

But he also defended his plan to get people off the streets.

“I refuse to stand by and watch people lose their lives. … This is Boston and it’s going to get very, very cold,” he told the newspaper.

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