Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden on May 2 announced the allocation of $400,000 from his office’s Asset Forfeiture Fund to expand an innovative alternative-to-prosecution program with the goal of aiding individuals who reside in and frequent the Mass and Cass section of Boston.
Hayden called the extraordinary expenditure “a fitting use of assets seized from drug dealers to directly address the most visible and problematic drug-related geographic area in Massachusetts today.”
“It’s clear that traditional court involvement is not the answer for many of the vulnerable individuals in the center or fringes of Mass and Cass. We need to present alternative solutions that identify and address the issues that brought them there in the first place. I’m confident this program does that, and I think money seized from drug-related convictions is a fitting method to fund it,” Hayden said.
The funds will expand Services Over Sentences (SOS), a program begun in Suffolk County district and municipal courts by the Suffolk DA’s office last year in partnership with North Suffolk Mental Health Association. Under SOS, non-violent offenders with mental health or substance use disorders can volunteer to work with clinicians and recovery coaches on an intensive recovery program. The program’s motto is “modify the behavior, treat the disease.”
Program participants are assessed based on their level of risk – referring to their likelihood of participating in criminal or otherwise dangerous behavior – and their level of need for services. Current SOS programming is available to those who present as low risk, low need. The program expansion will create a new, more intensive track of services and programming available to individuals up to the highest risk and need categories.
Prosecutors will retain discretion to determine whether diversion through the SOS program is appropriate based on the assessment of the individual and their criminal case. Depending on the case, an eligible individual may voluntarily participate in the SOS program on a pre-arraignment or post-arraignment basis. If pre-arraignment, a completed program can prevent an individual from acquiring a court record. If post-arraignment, a completed program can mitigate or replace a conviction or traditional sentencing.
The appropriation from Hayden’s office will fund a program coordinator, two recovery coaches. a clinician, computers and other equipment. The expansion increases the program’s capacity to absorb the anticipated influx of cases arising in the Mass and Cass area during the spring and summer months. Program workers would be present in court and on site.
Audrey Clairmont, Director of Addiction Services at NSMHA, said the SOS program will help identify and treat the factors involved in bringing individuals into the Mass and Cass area with the goal of providing them the support to leave it. SOS personnel will work with program participants on establishing a source of income, ensuring safe and stable housing, developing skills and educational training, ensuring access to healthy food and access to healthcare, detox and sobriety services, she said.
“The individuals at Mass and Cass are complex, high risk and high need. The SOS program brings the worlds of treatment, recovery and criminal justice together for a full system of care approach to empower these individuals to lead healthy, fulfilling and productive lives in their communities,” Clairmont said.
Hayden said the money from his office’s Asset Forfeiture Fund is designated to fund the first year of the program. His office helped draft a state budget amendment that would help fund the program’s second and subsequent years and is exploring private funding and other options as well.
“We’ll be looking at every possible funding source because the needs of community members and vulnerable individuals at Mass and Cass demand it. Our hope is that the success of the program will be its greatest advertisement for additional funding,” Hayden said.
Sen. Nick Collins (D-South Boston), a member of the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, called the mental health and substance use disorder crisis at Mass and Cass “a battle we must win.”
“It will take creative solutions and stakeholders from all levels of government to prevail. 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,” Collins said.