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Berkshire Sheriff Skeptical About Some Criminal Justice Reforms

A white man with glasses sits behind a wooden desk in an office
Josh Landes
Berkshire Sheriff Thomas Bowler.

Continuing a series of conversations with top law enforcement officials in Berkshire County, WAMC Berkshire Bureau Chief Josh Landes sat down with Sheriff Thomas Bowler for an extended interview this week.

The Berkshire County House Of Correction is in Lanesborough, tucked into the hills between a construction yard and the campus of the Berkshire Mall.

“There was always this stigma about jails, that jails were a bad place to be, or a bad place to go. In my opinion, and those of us who are in the correction field, feel totally different, that people can actually benefit by coming to jail," said Sheriff Thomas Bowler. “Our role and our responsibility is to take those individuals and make them better individuals when they leave here then when they came in. Reintegrate them back into the community, because the bottom line is, they’re going back out into our community. So it’s a question of how we want them to be when they come back out into the community. We want them living a positive, structured lifestyle, to be taxpayers to this community, and to help build the community and become a stronger, safer, and healthier community.”

But the challenges are daunting.

“90 percent of our population here are addicted to some kind of substance, whether it’s alcohol or drugs,
 he told WAMC. "We’re also finding a higher – the numbers are increasing immensely when it comes to mental health problems. When I first started out here eight years ago, we had maybe one or two SMIs, or seriously mentally ill individuals in the jail. We’re up almost 20 now.”

Bowler says the facility plays a vital role on the front lines of battling addiction in Berkshire County.

“It interrupts — especially with the opiate addiction that we have, the epidemic that we have, you’re actually interrupting the process," said the sheriff. "If you have someone who has an addiction to a drug or alcohol and criminal behavior is attached to it, then take the opportunity to disrupt the process and intervene, have some intervention, send them to jail for whatever the period of time – six, eight months to a year – but allow them to get clean, sober, get a healthy mind, a healthy body, and let us reintegrate them back into the community.”

While some jails in Massachusetts are trying out a pilot program where they distribute drugs intended to mitigate opioid addiction to inmates, the Berkshire County House Of Correction doesn’t.

“Those who are out on the street, and they are on a maintenance program – medically assisted treatment program with suboxone or methadone – once they’re arrested and they  come in here, we don’t provide the methadone or suboxone," said Bowler. "First of all, we don’t have a liscense to do that, for one reason. But at the same time, we’re firm believers in abstinence.”

He claims the numbers don’t support medically assisted treatment.

“We have found out that 77 – to date now, 77 percent of those that are taking medically assisted treatment are also using illegal drugs as well," said Bowler. "So the theory – in our thought, the theory of, okay, if we put them on maintenance programs it’s going to keep them from – stop them from doing crime, stop them from doing other drugs. Well, that’s not happening.”

Bowler says 200 of the jail’s 500 beds are full, with an average stay of between five to eight months.

“We have the jail population. That’s those who are waiting to go to trial. They’re bound over or they’re held on bail," he said. "Then we have the house of correction population, and that’s the sentence group. Those are the individuals who have already gone to court and they’ve been found guilty and they’ve been sentenced here. They can only do two and a half years here on any one charge.”

After 26 years as a cop, Bowler says it’s difficult at times to play the role of both a law enforcement official and, to some degree, a politician, as sheriff.

“Even though it’s an elected position and I’m a political figurehead, I try to tell myself every single day that I’m a cop, I’m law enforcement," he told WAMC. "We're here for public safety.”

Bowler says those dual identities have been tested by recent calls for criminal justice reform, specifically during the hard-fought District Attorney campaign.

“There’s been a lot of emphasis on the campaign that we’re over-incarcerating here in Massachusetts," he said. "That’s not the case. Incarceration rates in Massachusetts were 50th out of 50 states. The population here has dropped over several years.”

Bowler expressed concerns about Massachusetts is responding to the challenge of rising crime.

“I’m not saying crime’s going through the roof, but we’re seeing an increase in violent crime," said the sheriff. "We’re seeing younger individuals being involved in violent crime, especially in these shootings and stabbings. Crime seems to be on the rise, but yet incarceration is on the low.”

He said the imbalance indicated something askew in the state’s response.

“Something in the middle isn’t right, and whether that’s things that are happening in the court system or our judicial system – and I’m certainly not putting the blame on anyone in particular, but I think sometimes we just jump way too fast," said Bowler. "I think we really need to do our research and not always listen to special interest groups but maybe sit down and talk to the true professionals who are doing the job.”

Specifically, the sheriff said a recent push by lawmakers for more medically assisted treatment for incarcerated people suffering from opioid addiction was misguided.  

“They were going to force this medically assisted treatment down our throats, to the point where even they were looking at the Department of Corrections to put everybody who goes to the Department of Corrections on a maintenance program," said Bowler. "Well,  people in the Department of Corrections are there for anywhere from five years to life, so you’re going to spend all this money to keep people on a maintenance program for when they’re not going to even overdose? They’re not going to have access to the outside, they’re not going to be out there in the community?”

Bowler said the legislature needs to talk to law enforcement professionals – and the people at the heart of the conversation.

“How about talking with the individuals who this is really going to effect – and that’s the inmate population," said the sheriff. "See what their response is, see what they’re looking for. We talk to these individuals on a day to day basis. A lot of these individuals who have been on methadone or suboxone and they come off them don’t want to go back on them. They want to stay as far away from them as they can.”

Noting that medically assisted treatment does work for some addicts, Bowler said he was interested to see the results of a pilot program that will see a handful of Massachusetts jails administer the drugs.

“I just didn’t think there was a lot of data out there to start up and do it right away. Sometimes we have a knee jerk reaction to things without really taking a look whether it’s going to effective or ineffective. And I think that the case with a lot of the criminal justice reform as well.”

He isn’t optimistic about the long-term effects of recent attempts at reform.

“My own personal opinion, I think some years down the road I think we’re going to be changing – I think we’re going to be reforming some of the reforms that we’ve done with criminal justice. We’re going to be going back to some of the old ways, I think.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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