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The special court session established in the Suffolk County jail earlier this month to process individuals arrested in the area of Mass. and Cass on open warrants is no longer operating.
The Massachusetts Trial Court rescinded the order that created the court on Friday. Starting Monday, cases that were heard in the temporary court — referred to by officials as the “Community Response Session” — were being transitioned back to their respective court jurisdictions.
“Given the low case volume at the Community Response Session, the Trial Court has made the decision to discontinue the session,” a trial court spokesperson said in a statement. “The Boston Municipal Court will continue to communicate and collaborate with the City of Boston and state agencies to expand services to those court-involved individuals in need of services in every Division of the Boston Municipal Court.”
Since the court began at the Suffolk County jail in early November, the temporary session has faced criticism from advocates for being ill-equipped medically to serve arrested individuals who were struggling with addiction or other medical issues and for criminalizing individuals struggling with substance use disorder.
Boston officials said the goal of the court was to deal with serious criminal offenders spending time in and around the encampment at Mass. and Cass, which has become the epicenter of the city’s opioid, homelessness, and mental health crises. But most of the individuals brought into the session were facing relatively low-level charges.
Overall, advocates said people had a worse experience in the jail session than they would have at a physical courthouse and several people were held on charges even when treatment beds were available to them.
“I want to thank the Trial Court for listening to our concerns and for putting an end to a project that never really accomplished what it set out to do,” Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency, said in a statement. “I also want to thank the social workers and public defenders who went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure their clients were protected in this undesirable setting. We have said from the beginning that the stated goals of this session could have, and should have, been achieved at a physical, existing courthouse. We will continue to represent the rights of all our clients, many of whom are experiencing homelessness and substance use issues — societal problems that should be handled outside the criminal justice system.”
During its operation across nine days over three weeks, 21 people were arrested and brought before Judge Paul Treseler, who presided virtually, WBUR reports. Many of the individuals were sent back to courts where their warrants originated, but potentially more than half were either released into treatment or released with the order to return to court at a later date.
At least one person was arrested while waiting in line for methadone treatment.
According to WBUR, people who were released were ordered to stay away from Mass. and Cass, even if they were receiving medical services in the area.
Officials have said the court session moved forward in a separate, but parallel, effort from Boston’s encampment protocols, enacted by then-Acting Mayor Kim Janey in early November, which resulted in the removal of tents in the area.
Over the course of three weeks, city outreach workers placed 150 people into services under the protocols, according to the mayor’s office. Several were placed in shelters, while 126 were placed in addiction treatment programs and 16 were placed in transitional or permanent housing.
The city’s effort faced pushback from advocates, who raised concerns that the measures would only cause harm by dispersing and criminalizing the vulnerable population at Mass. and Cass. The ACLU of Massachusetts has taken the city to court over the protocols, but the organization has so far been denied a temporary restraining order to halt the tent removals.
But just a day after being sworn into office, Mayor Michelle Wu announced the city would be “pausing” tent removals at Mass. and Cass while the matter is weighed by the Suffolk County Superior Court. Wu said her administration will “not necessarily” resume the encampment protocols, even if a judge rules in the city’s favor.
“I think across the board there is agreement that we need to take a public health lens and a housing lens to this crisis,” she said last week. “And how that actually ends up connecting with people’s experience on the ground matters a great deal. So we’re going to be looking at all of that — from the policy all the way down to what is happening on the streets.”
Before she took office, Wu also expressed concerns about the court session.
When asked about the end of the court session at a public event on Sunday, Wu said that with the “dire” humanitarian crisis at Mass. and Cass “everything has to be on the table.”
“But the way that policies actually connect with results on the ground is more important than the intentions when the words are put on paper,” she said. “So I think it’s important that there were some learnings here and then a response to say that we need to keep doing better. To have the clock ticking on a life or death situation means that we at the city level are working as quickly as possible every single day to identify and prepare low-threshold supportive housing for residents as well as to access treatment. And to keep pushing every part of this system, other levels of government and the court system, to be able to respond in a way that actually meets people’s needs on the ground.”
The mayor told GBH News that while the protocols for removing tents at Mass. and Cass are paused, the city is continuing its outreach to individuals in the area.
“The barriers are still high for many of the shelter beds that are available, and we are now working quickly with a new team that we’ve assembled to take down those barriers and to create even more low-threshold housing so that people have a real alternative to being on the streets in tents,” she said.
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