By Chelsea Diana, State House Correspondent
BOSTON — District Attorney Marian T. Ryan says the 25 opiate-related deaths in Middlesex County in the new year is proof enough that a change in the way drug abusers are treated in the criminal-justice system is needed.
“That is a public-health issue,” Ryan said during a criminal-justice forum at UMass Boston on Thursday. “Many of those individuals (who died) had come to us having had interaction with the criminal-justice system.”
Ryan said Middlesex County has found ways to reduce the number of drug-related incarcerations by working with service providers, police and the court system. Last year, Lowell received a three-year, $100,000 grant to open a drug-treatment facility at Tewksbury Hospital.
Ryan also co-founded the Lowell Opiate Task Force, which brings together law enforcement, legislators and agencies to work on drug problems in Greater Lowell.
Ryan echoed Gov. Deval Patrick’s comments that stressed treatment over incarceration for substance abusers.
“We need to treat substance abuse as a health problem instead of a criminal one,” Patrick said during the MassINC-organized discussion, ‘Reform, Re-entry and Results: Change and Progress in the Massachusetts Criminal Justice System.’
“Punishing people for addiction doesn’t work. We need to divert drug users to treatment rather than incarceration,” he said.
Patrick laid out his 2015 budget plan for criminal-justice reform, which aims to reduce recidivism, or repeat arrests, by 50 percent over the next five years.
The program includes plans to for improved inmates’ re-entry into communities, increased educational and workforce training and improved treatment for those suffering from substance abuse and mental illness.
“We think there is a more pragmatic, more effective and most efficient way to think about criminal justice, one that deals with the realities of today, learns from the experience of the past, and actually makes the public safer,” Patrick said.
Since 2006, there has been a 67 percent increase in the number of civilly committed individuals in Massachusetts, Patrick said, exceeding the number of Department of Public Health treatment beds available.
By law, individuals who cannot secure a bed go to the Bridgewater or Framingham prisons where proper treatment is not available.
“Massachusetts is the only state in the country that holds civilly committed persons in prison,” Patrick said. “I think you know I like for Massachusetts to lead but not in the wrong direction, and treating those with substance abuse as prisoners is wrong.”
Patrick’s fiscal 2015 budget proposal would double the number of mental-health courts that help the mentally ill find appropriate treatment programs with judicial supervision rather than automatically placing them in incarceration.
This year’s budget also includes an additional $1 million to train police in handling people with mental-health issues, as well as an expansion of detoxification services and more treatment facilities for civilly committed individuals.
Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, is trying to get his own bill through committee, which would focus on reducing recidivism in juveniles.
The bill is based on the Lowell Juvenile Court Restorative Justice Diversion, which runs programs for young people accused of misdemeanors and low-level felonies. Those who finish the program avoid permanent criminal records.
“If you’re found guilty at 17 or 18 of a crime, opportunities are limited,” Eldridge said in a phone interview, emphasizing the need to expand Lowell’s initiative statewide.
The act would establish a committee to assess state programs and make recommendations for future programming.
Eldridge is also supporting a bill by Sen. William Brownsberger, D-Belmont, to reduce mandatory minimums for those convicted of drug-related offenses.
“Other states are repealing a lot of harsh policies and not just the Democrats, but Republicans as well because they’re realizing how much money can be saved,” Eldridge said.
As more legislators, such as Eldridge, push for their own reforms, Ryan remains hopeful.
“The key to where we are today has been extending smart progression of criminal justice and it is that coupled with our opportunity to use some of these new initiatives that will bring us to a different place,” she told the forum.