Suffolk County Sheriff says courtroom in his jail will soon open to help address ‘Mass. and Cass’ addiction crisis

Suffolk County Sheriff says courtroom in his jail will soon open to help address ‘Mass. and Cass’ addiction crisis

October 25, 2021
By Deborah Becker

Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins’ plan to outfit his jail with a new addiction treatment program — along with a makeshift courtroom to process criminal cases — appears to be on the verge of reality. Construction is underway, and Tompkins expects the facility to be ready in a matter of weeks.

It was just a month ago when Tompkins first suggested using available space at the jail as a way to respond to what the city describes as a growing crisis of hundreds of people living on Boston streets in the area known as “Mass. and Cass.” Tompkins said he’s met with area business leaders and state and city officials over the past few weeks and that his plan is quickly coming together.

Legally, the sheriff’s plan is murky. Tompkins said people brought in would not be sent to Building 8 under the state law known as Section 35, which allows for involuntary civil commitments to addiction treatment. He said participants would enter his program voluntarily. However, once people were brought to Building 8, Tompkins said they would not be permitted to leave and could be kept for up to 90 days — just as the Section 35 law stipulates.

Some legal advocates are concerned about this aspect of the plan, in addition to how the determination will be made as to who goes to the sheriff’s program and who does not.

“Whether you call it Section 35 or you call it something else, it sounds a lot like involuntary treatment,” said Lizz Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts.

Though in some criminal cases defendants are offered treatment in lieu of harsher  sanctions, advocates said the exact legal mechanism by which someone would go to treatment at Tompkins’ jail was not clear. Matos added that research shows involuntary addiction treatment is not as effective as voluntary treatment, which she said would be better provided in a health care setting than in a jail.

“No one likes the situation at ‘Mass. and Cass,’ and no one should. But the solution is not this,” Matos said. “Nothing about this plan is going to stop it from being a revolving door problem.”

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