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Health, Policy Leaders Hope To Improve Mass. Civil Commitment Law For Substance Abuse

People with addiction in Massachusetts can be forced into treatment by a legal process that some feel is unnecessarily punitive. At a community meeting Friday, health advocates and those in the criminal justice system had a range of perspectives on how that should change.

Throughout the state, judges are committing people with addiction into treatment — in most cases, against their will.

Under the state law known as Section 35, family members or court officers must make the case that person poses an imminent danger to themself or others. And while they may not have committed any crime, the judge can force them into a locked treatment facility.

“Section 35 itself is not criminalized; it's a civil commitment but it feels criminalized,” said Cherry Sullivan, who runs the Hampshire Hope coalition, which organized a community meeting with law enforcement, policy and health leaders to discuss ways the Section 35 process can be improved.

The meeting came shortly after a state commission released a report suggesting changes to the law, including finding ways to offer treatment outside the courts or prison system, and if restraints are needed, that they be “humane.”

As it stands now, when a judge orders someone into state custody for treatment, that often involves handcuffs, shackles or both.

“Knowing that someone is entering treatment for a medical issue yet still handcuffed seems to be problematic for a lot of our folks in the community,” said Sullivan.

Many public health advocates say using restraints is especially cruel for people with addiction, who often have a history of trauma.

“When you take somebody on Section 35, and you put them in handcuffs and shackles, and the cell door slams shut, you're really adding to those old traumas,” said Steve Jones, a retired public health physician, “and probably putting more pressure on that person to keep using drugs and alcohol, because that's how they deal with their traumas.”

A sign in the hallway in a Greenfield, Massachusetts, court building urges families to use Section 35 to access treatment.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR
A sign in the hallway in a Greenfield, Massachusetts, court building urges families to use Section 35 to access treatment.

Even those in the criminal justice system agree that handcuffing people with addiction is often unnecessary, but they say they don’t have much of a choice. For instance, when a judge issues a warrant to force someone into treatment, police officers often have to go find them and use standard arrest procedure.

“Some people are violent. They don't want to go in,” said Jody Kasper, police chief for Northampton. “You don't want to make someone feel like a criminal, but you also have to think about safety — safety of the individual, safety of your officers, safety of other people in the area.”

Ideally, Kasper said she’d like to see many more options for drug and alcohol treatment so that services now provided through the criminal justice system — like driving people to treatment, or finding them a place in rehab — would be done in the community.

That’s a solution health advocates and policy leaders have echoed.

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