There were strong endorsements today for a controversial program in Massachusetts that involuntarily commits people for addiction treatment under a state law known as Section 35. The Hampden County Sheriff’s Department marked the one-year anniversary of its Section 35 program with a gathering in Springfield of former clients, family members, community partners, and elected officials.
Since Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi opened the program known as the Stonybrook Stabilization and Treatment Center last May it has taken in more than 860 people. Among the first to enter the treatment program was a man who asked to be identified only as “Keith,” who said it helped save his life.
"I hope they don't shut this program down," he said. " The more programs that are out there the better chance we have."
Section 35 allows a judge to act at the request of a family member or law enforcement officer to commit someone to jail or prison for addiction treatment even if the person is not charged with a crime.
Legislation has been filed to end the practice and it is the target of a lawsuit. In 2016, the state agreed to stop sending women to correctional facilities for addiction treatment.
Cocchi said before he began taking Section 35 commitments last year there were “zero” options for such addiction services in western Massachusetts.
"For people who believe the overdose crisis is moving in the right direction, they are sadly mistaken," said Cocchi.
The program accepts people from the four western counties and Worcester County. It operates in a wing of the Hampden County Jail in Ludlow and at a facility in a residential neighborhood in Springfield.
" What we've done is built relationships and stabilized the individuals and what at one time was considered forced-treatment has become acceptance and has become voluntary treatment, " said Cocchi. "That is the success of the program."
Opioid deaths declined overall in Massachusetts last year, according to a report from the state health department. But the number of overdose deaths rose in Hampden County and doubled in the city of Springfield.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said the need for a Section 35 program is pretty clear to him.
" It is doing the right thing to help out individuals and families at a second chance at a productive life," said Sarno. " I tell those who question it, the alternative is that person might be around again."
Also endorsing the program was the head of the largest health care organization in western Massachusetts, Dr. Mark Keroack, the CEO of Baystate Health.
"This is the kind of innovative and effective program that the opioid crisis now demands," said Keroack. He said fewer than 5 percent of the people who have gone through the progam were recommitted. "That's a statewide low," said Keroack.
Democratic State Rep. Michael Finn of West Springfield was the only member of a legislative commission to vote against recommending an end to Section 35 commitments to correctional facilities. He said the Hampden County Sheriff’s program is good for western Massachusetts.
"He's providing services that, quite frankly, nobody else in Hampden County was willing to do at a level above everyone else in the state," said Finn. " Why should we reinvent the wheel out here in Hampden County?"
A $1 million line item for the Section 35 program at the Hampden County Jail was included in the state budget signed last week by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker.