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For those at Mass. and Cass, a new order to stay away

Prosecutors are using court orders to try to disrupt the cycle of drug use and drug dealing

Reinhard Rompies, center and Godwin Odimegwu, right, appeared at Boston Municipal Court Thursday.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The 32-year-old man lives in Framingham and has a long sheet of pending court cases that could lead to a jail sentence. But in early June, police said, Steven Hixon was back in the area known as Mass. and Cass, where they allegedly saw him dealing fentanyl on a corner known for drug activity.

Hixon was charged that day with trafficking 20 grams of fentanyl and possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine. He allegedly had $3,590 in cash on him. After a brief appearance in a Roxbury court, he was ordered held on $5,000 cash bail.

Judge David B. Poole also issued a stern warning, in the form of a very specific court order: If you are released, stay away from that area of Massachusetts Avenue, between Norfolk Avenue and Harrison Avenue, from Southampton Street and Atkinson Street, Gerard Street and Topeka Street.

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Prosecutors even outlined the area for him on a map, one they now have handy for similar cases.

What Poole handed down that day is called a stay-away order, a tested strategy in the criminal justice system to discourage a defendant from returning to an area, under the threat of being jailed.

And among the many remedies that public officials have deployed recently to address the humanitarian crisis in the area of Mass. and Cass, law enforcement authorities are increasingly using the orders to disrupt the cycle of drug use and drug dealing that has plagued the neighborhood.

Poole had already ordered Hixon to stay away from the area, part of the reason, the judge said, that he ordered Hixon held after his most recent arrest.

“There are consequences for violating the order,” said Marc Tohme, a deputy chief in the Suffolk County district attorney’s office who oversees the effort.

Like almost everything having to do with Mass. and Cass, the strategy calls for a nuanced approach, as prosecutors look to distinguish between drug traffickers and those who suffer from substance abuse disorders and mental illness and who head to the area seeking treatment. But law enforcement officials hope the real threat of jail time will serve as a deterrent, to keep away the dealers who prey on those in the area, as well as those who might want to go there seeking to buy drugs.

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“The most important thing from our perspective is public safety,” Tohme said.

The strategy is part of a broader, multilayered effort to address an area that is the center of the region’s opioid abuse and homelessness epidemic. In January, Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration broke down tent encampments and moved more than 150 people into supportive housing, where they can get mental health and substance abuse treatment. She has called it a public-health-led approach to the crisis.

The city, Wu said, cannot arrest its way out of the problem. But she also said that law enforcement officials must play a role, particularly to combat what has become an open-air drug market. A police street outreach team has worked closely with Wu’s public health advisers over the last several months; through June 10 of this calendar year, police had arrested 192 people for a variety of crimes, a 98 percent increase from the 97 arrests in the same time last year.

“We are in the process of changing the perception of the area,” Lieutenant Peter Messina, of the street outreach team, said during a recent community meeting. But, he said, the criminal justice system at times can become a revolving door: Police arrest people in the morning, only to see them back on the street hours later.

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“We’re seeing them in the evening, walking right by us,” Messina said.

Police pointed to a blatant drug deal they allegedly witnessed just after 10 Wednesday morning, leading to the arrest of two men who allegedly had significant amounts of fentanyl and crack cocaine. One also had a loaded handgun.

Reinhard Rompies, 39, was charged with trafficking 54 grams of fentanyl and 224 grams of crack cocaine, and carrying an illegal firearm and ammunition — all of which he allegedly stashed in a backpack. He was ordered held without bail pending a dangerousness hearing.

Godwin Odimegwu, 39, allegedly served as a middle man in the drug deal. He was ordered held on $3,000 cash bail and to stay away from the area, if he is released. His lawyer, Matthew Malm, said Odimegwu is homeless and has substance abuse issues.

“He realizes he needs help with his drug addiction,” Malm said during a court hearing Thursday.

Advocates for people who are homeless and battling substance abuse have mixed views. They say that they recognize the need to target dangerous offenders, but that the orders should not interfere with someone’s ability to seek services, pointing to the concentration of treatment programs that made the area a destination in the first place.

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Advocates called on authorities to recognize that people who deal drugs may be doing so to feed their own habits.

“It’s the service hub of the city, and it can get complicated because people are going to need to go somewhere,” said Brendan Little, a former policy director for the Mayor’s Office of Recovery Services in Boston. “These are people who need the most support, and when there’s no place to get that support, it can exacerbate that problem.”

That conflict arose in a case in March, when a judge was asked to order a defendant in a sex trafficking case to stay away from the neighborhood. The man, Keon Boggs, was homeless and sleeping at the city-run homeless shelter at 112 Southampton, not far from where he allegedly committed the crimes. The judge decided the man could return to the shelter at certain times of the day.

Authorities later dropped the charges against Boggs, who has severe mental illness, according to his lawyer, John S. Redden.

Redden, who questions the legality of such orders in general, said judges should consider the implications for defendants who need treatment, not jail time.

“Some people they seek to arrest are, in many cases, the victims,” he said. “Instead of solving a problem, you’re creating a problem and doing harm to someone when it’s not necessary.”

Tohme, of the district attorney’s office, said that prosecutors do consider the defendants’ circumstances on a case-by-case basis, and that they seek the orders for people charged with drug dealing and trafficking, human sex trafficking, gun crimes, and crimes of violence.

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“We don’t want to be a hindrance to service, but we want to ensure the community and public safety in the area,” Tohme said. “That’s the balance we’re trying to strike.”

Steve Fox, who oversees a community group of neighborhood residents who have been working to force policy changes at Mass. and Cass, said the group plans to recommend expanding police patrols and the use of the stay-away orders in an action plan it will send to the city.

But, Fox said, the action plan will also call on service providers in the area to diversify their treatment programs and offer them in other neighborhoods, so they are not concentrated at Mass. and Cass. That way, he said, people will have no need to return to the area, especially after they are arrested.

“I think we need to be a little smarter about this in terms of creating opportunities for that treatment to be rendered — other than at Mass. and Cass,” he said.

John R. Ellement of the Globe staff and correspondent Alexander Thompson contributed to this report.


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617.