Services Over Sentences: Boston Expands Diversion Program
No one can say Interim Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden is without ambition. No one can accuse him of being without compassion either. Heck, if his called for expansion of the Services Over Sentences program turns out as planned, he may go down as the most ambitious and compassionate D.A. in Boston history. He’ll also probably be a shoo-in come election time.
Why? Because Boston’s top prosecutor isn’t just expanding the ideal-driven Services Over Sentences; he’s expanding the program to cover arrests made at the intersection of Mass & Cass.
Services Over Sentences vs Mass & Cass
Few city intersections have their own Wiki page. Those that do tend to be tourist destinations. You know, so-called ‘nice’ places. Even there though the entries tend toward thoroughfares rather than intersections. Times Square, Bourbon Street, Sunset Boulevard – you get the drift. Yes, Hollywood & Vine has its own Wiki page, but it’s mostly for the ghosts, not the ghouls.
Not so Boston’s Mass and Cass, which is as ghoulish as it gets. That’s what the innuendo says anyway. And this intersection seems to be made of nothing but innuendo. Then again, what else but innuendo can affix to a place with nicknames like Methadone Mile and Recovery Road?
As for Mass & Cass, well, the name actually springs from Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue. These days though it’s come to represent the entire general area. It’s also come to be synonymous with addicts and overdoses, to an unprecedented degree. Some folks say things got out of hand after then Mayor Marty Walsh and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation shut down the old steel bridge linking the area to the rehabs and homeless shelters on nearby Long Island. Others say things were cascading toward crazy way before 2014. Whatever the case, residents seem to still be waiting for a new bridge – to anywhere. Meantime, substance abuse spreads, homelessness advances and mental health adds issues to its own issues. Creates quite a challenging environment.
D.A. Hayden is stepping up to the challenge. Call him a little crazy. Others will. Especially once they see him try to apply a diversion effort in an area like Mass & Cass. But while D.A. Hayden’s plan might not stop arrests, it just may put the kibosh on the rampant recidivism. Heck, the world will be thrilled if he can at least trim it down to a civilly-sustainable size.
Services Over Sentences
“It would be very easy for us to say, ‘Let’s just get these people out of here. But the correct approach is to say, ‘Let’s give these people a way out of here.'”
Those are D.A. Hayden’s Mass & Cass fighting words. Naysayers will say they’re spoken like a true politician. Hopeful types will swear he’s got the right, bright idea. Whatever the thought, D.A. Hayden “says his office will take a different approach to handling certain cases that arise out of mental health and substance abuse issues.” And yes, that means “offering [Mass & Cass] defendants a path towards help instead of jail.”
That’s how Boston.com reporter Christopher Gavin broke the story. And that’s who we’re relying upon here.
“Hayden, a Democrat now seeking a full term this November, announced Monday he will expand the “Services Over Sentences” program launched last year, with an emphasis on addressing arrests around the area known as Mass & Cass, the unofficial epicenter of the region’s homelessness crisis and opioid epidemic.”
“Services Over Sentences” gives “defendants who are arrested on a charge relating to substance abuse and mental illness [the opportunity to] take part in a treatment program.” Once they complete the program, the charges could be dismissed or sentences could be mitigated, including “switching would-be jail time to probation.”
A Bold Approach
It’s a bold approach, involving pretty much every resource stakeholders have at their disposal. It also invloves pretty much every stakeholder.
“It will take creative solutions and stakeholders from all levels of government to prevail,” state Sen. Nick Collins said in a statement. “The expansion of the SOS initiative sponsored by the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office is an important way to intervene with resources to ensure the public’s health and safety needs are being addressed holistically.”
North Suffolk Mental Health Association Addiction Services Director Audrey Clairmount concurs with the South Boston Democrat. Good thing too, because her organization is an SOS partner.
“The SOS program will draw on the best the worlds of public safety, treatment, and recovery have to offer,” said Clairmount. “By design, SOS will offer an opportunity to recover in lieu of incarceration through the use of evidence-based treatments.”
No Get Out of Jail Free Card
Don’t think for a second that Services Over Sentences will work as some kind of Get Out of Jail Free Card. Not even close. In the first place, “eligibility [will be] based on a defendant’s criminal history and the nature of the charges,” says Hayden. That means “only individuals with non-violent offenses can participate.”
Hayden’s office also told Gavin that “defendants [will be] assessed on their level of risk, or their likelihood of participating in criminal or otherwise dangerous behavior.” Finally, prosecutors will also take into consideration the “level of need for services.”
As for those who are out running and gunning up and down Mass & Cass, well, they can forget it. Hayden told Gavin his staff will “still prosecute anyone who victimizes the vulnerable residents in and around Mass. and Cass.”
“They will be held accountable for their crimes,” he said.
Conversely, no one will be forced to enroll in Services Over Sentences. In fact, Assistant District Attorney Marc Tohme made clear that participation in the program is completely voluntary.
The ADA also made clear that Suffolk Country won’t be limiting the program to Mass & Cass arrestees either.
“We don’t want to turn anyone away who needs services,” Tohme added. “It’s obviously directed towards high-risk, high-need situations. So we want to make it as expansive as possible.”
Best though is what a successful SOS participant can look forward to on the other side.
“If a defendant completes the treatment program before their arraignment,” writes Gavin, “they may avoid having the charges on their criminal record altogether.”
Knowing how much a criminal record hampers a person’s ability to find housing and employment, that’s a verifiably bountiful offering.
Healing Properties wholeheartedly applauds the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, as well as the North Suffolk Mental Health Association for expanding and enhancing the Services Over Sentences Program. That they’ve decided to focus on a troubled area such as Mass & Cass proves they’re all-in on the effort. It also proves they don’t scare very easily. Most folks would’ve found some easier targets. It’s clear that Hayden, Tohme, Clairmount et al aren’t just most folks. We’d also like to Thank Boston.com reporter Christopher Gavin for bringing to light such a bright and hopeful story, as well as Wiki for continuing to be the go-to backup for nearly everything.
How about you? Could you use a little SOS? Well, there are all kinds of programs out there. All sorts of ways to save your life too. First though, you’ve gotta commit. Then you’ve gotta get in touch with the right folks. Give us a ring. We’ll get you sorted. Whether you’re hanging’ ’round Mass & Cass, Skid Row or the Badlands. We’ll see you get somewhere safe. Bet on it.
(Image: Live Boston Twitter)