Amid increasing incidents of violence and vagrancy in the area of Mass. and Cass, Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden is taking a new approach to address crimes there that are related to substance abuse and mental illness: help, instead of prosecution.
Hayden on Monday announced the expansion of a Services Over Sentences program targeting those arrested near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, which has become the center of the region’s opioid and homelessness epidemic.
Instead of facing the courts, defendants whose crimes are rooted in mental illness or substance use will have the option of choosing instead to participate in a treatment program. If they stay with the program, their charges could be dismissed or they could avoid jail, allowing them to get help while circumventing the criminal justice system.
Hayden said he will immediately allocate $400,000 from his office’s Asset Forfeiture Fund, the cash and assets secured from illegal drug seizures, to cover costs for a program coordinator, two recovery coaches, and a clinician, as well as office equipment. Those resources could fund treatment for as many as 30 participants at any given point, officials said. Hayden said he hopes to have the program ready by June.
The district attorney said his office will decide who is eligible for the program based on the nature of their charges and criminal histories; only nonviolent offenders will be allowed to participate. The program will run as a defendant’s case makes its way through the criminal justice system, and participation is voluntary.
But Hayden said the new level of funding for the program expansion is meant to specifically target those who are most in need. He also said the use of assets seized from drug dealers is a fitting way to “directly address the most visible and problematic drug-related geographic area in Massachusetts today.”
“It’s clear that traditional court involvement is not the answer for many of the vulnerable individuals in the center or fringes of Mass. and Cass,” Hayden said. “We need to present alternative solutions that identify and address the issues that brought them there in the first place.”
Hayden’s public-health focused approach comes amid growing concerns of crimes and violence and the return of a massive open-air drug market that has long plagued the area.
In January, Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration broke down tent encampments in Newmarket Square and along Atkinson Street, by a homeless shelter and engagement center, and offered transitional housing to keep people off the streets. But residents and community leaders say the problems persist, as warmer weather has brought people back outside.
And as people head to the area seeking help at nearby rehabilitation programs, they also encounter the temptations of the open-air drug market, in what has become a vicious cycle of addiction that has also led to an increase in violence.
Last week, city officials closed the city-run engagement center on Atkinson Street, what is said to be a temporary measure, after a rash of brazen daytime stabbings, including one near the center. Also, police have arrested several people for prostitution and sex trafficking, among concerns that women are engaging in sex to feed their drug habit. Last week, police arrested a former federal prosecutor for allegedly offering to engage in sex for a fee.
Advocates have called for a public health-led approach to the crisis, saying police cannot arrest their way out of a societal problem: Past proposals to use the nearby county jail as a shelter to push people into rehabilitation have failed. City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, a former public defender who is running for district attorney, has also called for a public health-led approach.
Sue Sullivan, of the Newmarket Business Association, who has worked with dozens of people who were living in the encampments to help direct them to housing and treatment programs, welcomed Hayden’s approach, saying authorities must realize the city cannot arrest its way out of the crisis. Those who are most vulnerable are repeatedly arrested and return to the streets without ever getting help, she said.
“The problem is, that’s not helping them, that’s not helping anyone. They need to get into recovery, and this program will do just that. It will give them a fighting chance,” she said. “Right now, there isn’t any option.”
“We have hundreds of people down on the street ... and many of them need help. Right now, there’s isn’t an option,” she said.
Hayden said the expansion of the Services Over Sentences program to target people at Mass. and Cass will build off a successful program his office has already been running with the North Suffolk Mental Health Association. The district attorney added, though, that the program expansion focused on Mass. and Cass will offer a more intensive track of services.
Audrey Clairmont, director of addiction services at North Suffolk Mental Health Association, said the people who frequent Mass. and Cass are “complex, high risk, and high need,” and each of them have individual needs. There is no pass-or-fail test, she said. Instead, the overall goal is getting people help.
“They have to opt into this program, and there will be full transparency of what the goals of this program are, and the goals are recovery,” she said. “It’s not about how many times they fall off, it’s about how many times they get back up.”
Hayden said the use of asset forfeiture funds is a one-time expenditure, but that he has worked with state Representative Liz Miranda, a Democrat representing Roxbury and Dorchester, to seek sustained state funding. He said the program is only one strategy in what must be a multi-pronged effort to address the crisis.
“We save one life, we’ve helped. We save two, we’ve helped. 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, a shot at a clean start,” he said.