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Interim Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden says his office will take a different approach to handling certain cases that arise out of mental health and substance abuse issues, offering defendants a path towards help instead of jail.
Hayden, a Democrat now seeking a full term this November, announced Monday he will expand the “Services Over Sentences” program launched last year, with an emphasis on addressing arrests around the area known as Mass. & Cass, the unofficial epicenter of the region’s homelessness crisis and opioid epidemic.
Through the program, defendants who are arrested on a charge relating to substance abuse and mental illness can instead opt to take part in a treatment program, depending on their case. Following completion of the program, the charges could be dismissed or defendants may see their sentence mitigated, such as switching would-be jail time to probation.
“It would be very easy for us to say, ‘Let’s just get these people out of here,'” Hayden said during a press conference. “But the correct approach is to say, ‘Let’s give these people a way out of here.'”
To cover costs of personnel and equipment, Hayden will set aside $400,000 from the district attorney’s office’s Asset Forfeiture Fund, the account prosecutors keep lined with cash and assets seized from criminal drug activity. The cash will allow for the program to operate for one year, with up to 30 participants at any given time, officials said.
“The SOS program will draw on the best the worlds of public safety, treatment, and recovery have to offer,” said Audrey Clairmount, director of addiction services at the North Suffolk Mental Health Association, the program’s partner. “By design, SOS will offer an opportunity to recover in lieu of incarceration through the use of evidence-based treatments.”
Hayden said he hopes the state Legislature will fund the initiative after the first year, but added his office is also considering other sources of funding.
“It will take creative solutions and stakeholders from all levels of government to prevail,” state Sen. Nick Collins, a South Boston Democrat, said in a statement. “The expansion of the SOS initiative sponsored by the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office is an important way to intervene with resources to ensure the public’s health and safety needs are being addressed holistically.”
Prosecutors will decide eligibility for the expanded program based on a defendant’s criminal history and the nature of the charges before them, according to Hayden. Only individuals with non-violent offenses can participate.
According to Hayden’s office, defendants are assessed on their level of risk, or “their likelihood of participating in criminal or otherwise dangerous behavior,” and their level of need for services.
Hayden said his staff will, however, still prosecute “anyone who victimizes the vulnerable residents in and around Mass. and Cass.”
“They will be held accountable for their crimes,” he said.
Assistant District Attorney Marc Tohme, deputy chief of municipal courts in the district attorney’s office, said participation in the program is voluntary.
Once a defendant agrees to seek treatment, officials will review criminal records, police reports, and other materials pertinent to the specific case. From there, the North Suffolk Mental Health Association will complete an evaluation of each individual and in turn, administer a service assessment, according to Tohme.
Individuals will receive a diagnosis, a treatment plan, and a level of care recommendation, among other guidance, before they work with clinicians and recovery coaches, Tohme said.
According to Clairmont, participants will work with personnel to establish a source of income, find secure housing, develop skills and other training, and ensure access to healthy food, health care, detox, and other sobriety services.
If a defendant completes the treatment program before their arraignment, they may avoid having the charges on their criminal record altogether, officials said.
Although the program is tailored towards those in the Mass. and Cass area, the option will be offered throughout Suffolk County.
“We don’t want to turn anyone away who needs services,” Tohme said. “It’s obviously directed towards high-risk, high-need situations. So we want to make it as expansive as possible.”
Hayden’s initiative follows efforts by the city to better address the confluence of issues in the area through a more humanitarian and support-based approach, rather than through the criminal justice system.
But some problems have persisted, including several violent incidents that prompted city officials to temporarily close a local Engagement Center on Atkinson Street last week.
Earlier in April, a man was arrested after he allegedly ran a sex and drug trafficking operation out of a tent. In March, authorities arrested a man for allegedly impersonating a state trooper and eliciting sexual acts.
Asked on Monday how exactly Hayden will measure the success of “Services Over Sentences,” Hayden said he was unsure of what the program’s success rate will be.
“I do know this: We save one life, we’ve helped. We save two, we’ve helped,” he said. “Every single one of these people needs help. Every single one of these people deserves a shot at sobriety, a shot at a new life.”
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