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Addiction Crisis Is Major Issue In Sheriff's Race

   The opioid addiction crisis has become a major issue in a high profile local election contest in western Massachusetts.

     Each of the Democratic candidates for Hampden County Sheriff -- Mike Albano, Tom Ashe, and Nick Cocchi -- have laid out plans to address opioid addiction and, to one extent or the other, have knocked their opponents ideas as ineffective or unaffordable.

     Ashe, a Springfield city councilor who has worked in corrections in Hampden and Worcester counties, has proposed taking a 77-bed unit at the Hampden County House of Corrections that he says is currently unused and making it a treatment facility.

     " This is treatment on demand or a civil commitment under Section 135 which allows the court to hold someone without their consent to receive the treatment they need," said Ashe.

     Ashe has been vague on how much it might cost to staff such a facility, but vowed to lobby the legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker to pay for it.

     " If ( money) is the roadblock then shame on all of us," said Ashe. " We are going to provide those beds and get the funding to provide the appropriate staffing."

     Cocchi, first in a press release, and later in a press conference, took direct aim at Ashe, criticizing him for not attaching a price tag to his proposal, but also branding it as bad policy.

    "It is highly unlikely that those seeking voluntary treatment will be willing to go to jail to get it," said Cocchi. " There are disadvantages and  dangers to criminalizing someone who has not been criminalized."

    Cocchi, who has worked at the sheriff’s department for 23 years and is the assistant superintendent at the county jail, has defended the work the department has done in addressing addiction. He said, as sheriff, he would continue to rely on community-based addiction treatment programs and services to help rehabilitate inmates.

   " Our men and women don't come and guess about how are we going to get it right. They are part of the solution for figuring out how we are going to do it for the future," said Cocchi.

    For his part, Albano, a member of the Governor’s Council and a former Springfield mayor, said fighting opioid addiction would be his top priority as sheriff.

   " In my view it is a perfect job  for the sheriff because not only are you saving lives, but you are preventing crime. That, to me, is a key element to what the roll of the sheriff is," Albano said in an interview.

   Albano, citing statistics that 800 people in Hampden County have died as a result of drug addiction since 2010, said he would tackle it as a public health crisis.

  " I am talking about not using the criminal justice system as the treatment model. It should be changed to that of a medical ( model)," he said.

   He is also vague about what his proposals would cost, but said money could be shifted from other sections of the sheriff’s budget.

  A central part of Albano’s campaign has been the location of the Western Massachusetts Correctional Addiction Center.  Started in the late 1980’s as a diversion program for people facing jail time for drunken driving, the center was recently forced to leave its longtime location in downtown Springfield to make way for the MGM casino.  It is slated to go to a former nursing home on Mill Street in Springfield, a location Albano fiercely opposes.

" I am not going to put a jail in the middle of a residential neighborhood. I am just not going to do it," said Albano.

Albano said he would move the program to the jail in Ludlow.  Citing a need to keep the center close to community-based services, both Cocchi and Ashe endorse the Mill Street location.

" That Mill Street center needs to be where it is going to be," said Ashe.

Cocchi said since the treatment center was moved more than a year ago to a temporary location at a former nursing home in Holyoke, it has lost its effectiveness because more than half the program’s Springfield-based volunteers have left.

  " What we found in the history of our addiction center is that the key component of our success is based on our volunteer and mentorship program," he said.

The three Democrats are running to succeed Mike Ashe, who is retiring after more than 40 years as sheriff. The Democratic incumbent, who is not related to Tom Ashe, has endorsed Cocchi.

James Gill, an assistant deputy superintendent at the jail, is running for sheriff as an independent. There is also a Republican candidate, John Comerford, a veterans’ services administrator.

The Democratic primary is September 8.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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