Patrick Calls for Criminal Reform for Substance Abuse and Mental Illness

BOSTON, Mass.—Gov. Deval Patrick has announced a plan to reduce recidivism by 50 percent in the next five years by implementing a step-down program, substance abuse rehabilitation and proper care for mentally ill offenders.

To reduce recidivism, Patrick plans to introduce a step-down program that will allow inmates to finish their sentences at county-based houses of correction. The strategy includes a program that takes offenders into the homes of families that have been affected by crime so that they can have a deeper understanding of how their crimes affect others. Currently, sheriffs from Berkshire, Essex, Hampden, Hampshire and Suffolk counties are partners in the step-down program.

Statistically, crime reform is something Massachusetts residents stand behind. In a recent survey conducted by MassINC, 85 percent of residents want a reform agenda that focuses on rehabilitation, increased use of probation, reduced sentences for non-violent criminals and drug users and reduced reliance on mandatory minimum sentencing.

“Crime is caused by people caught in their own destructive cycles,” Patrick said. “We as lawmakers can help by breaking some of ours.”

Patrick also supports treating those suffering from substance abuse as ill rather than punishing them for their addiction. On 24 February 2014, Massachusetts State Police reported 185 heroin-related deaths since 1 November 2013, and the office of Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan reports 25 opiate-related deaths in Massachusetts from January 1 to February 20 of this year. [Editor’s note: See “Candidate Proposes Office of Recovery” in this issue for a deeper look at Massachusetts’s substance abuse epidemic.]
To reduce the high rate at which substance abusers end up in prisons, the Department of Corrections and sheriffs involved in the step-down program will implement a substance abuse recovery program using injectable naltrexone, a drug designed to help those with opiate or alcohol addiction. According to Patrick, the fiscal year 2015 budget will ensure funding for all civil criminal programs, giving convicted criminals access to the help they need, including more beds in substance abuse centers and explanded civil commitment services.

“Treating addiction as a crime doesn’t work,” said Patrick.

Along with reforming substance abuse programs, those who suffer from mental illnesses will no longer be treated as criminals. Patrick’s 2015 budget proposes to double the number of mental health specialty courts to try to address more offenders’ medical needs rather than incarcerating them. The governor’s proposal for mentally ill patients includes 12 to 18 months of judicial supervision instead of jail time, providing the appropriate medical care and passing gun safety legislation preventing mentally ill people from being able to purchase firearms.

Some are concerned about the use of restraints on the mentally ill in prisons after the 2009 death of Joshua Messier, a 23 year old diagnosed with schizophrenia who was killed by corrections officers at Bridgewater State Hospital who were attempting to restrain him. Patrick has committed $1 million toward training law-enforcement officials how to properly handle and care for inmates with mental issues.

“Unless he is a danger to himself or others, he should not be tied down limb by limb in the twenty-first century in Massachusetts,” Patrick explained.

Patrick also issued emergency regulations banning restraints on pregnant inmates in labor. The restraints already banned in state prisons. Patrick’s emergency regulation extends that ban to all Massachusetts prisons. The governor says he hopes to cut down on all use of restraints by properly training Department of Corrections employees.

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