Women committed for detox will no longer be sent to prison
By State House News Service | January 26, 2016, 6:30 EDT
STATE HOUSE — Massachusetts women civilly committed for substance abuse treatment will no longer be sent to prison and instead will be referred to one of the 60 new state hospital beds slated to open this year under a law signed by Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday.
“For the past 30 years and for reasons I don’t fully understand, the commonwealth of Mass. has routinely under state law sent women who were civilly committed due to a substance abuse disorder to Framingham state prison instead of to a treatment facility,” Baker said after signing the law. “By signing this legislation today…I can now say that the commonwealth of Mass. will no longer be sending women to prison who need treatment.”
The legislation landed on Baker’s desk last week after it was recommended by a conference committee of lawmakers tasked with reconciling the differences between separate House and Senate addiction prevention bills. The other provisions in the bills remain before the committee for negotiation, the House and Senate passed the civil committment pieces hours before Baker delivered his annual State of the Commonwealth address and declared victory on this issue.
Baker had filed for the change in state law in his own opioid abuse prevention bill in October.
By Feb. 9, 15 beds at Taunton State Hospital will be available for women under the civil commitment process known as “Section 35,” Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said. Twenty-eight new beds have opened at the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain, where nurses are still being hired.
By this summer, around 60 new beds will be available between the two hospitals. Sudders said there are six women now civilly committed for substance abuse at Framingham who will either move to the hospitals or end their commitment before then.
Officials who gathered for the bill signing ceremony on Monday said that the law change should have been made sooner, but a new focus on treating opioid addiction as a disease rather than a crime had made it a critical issue.
The rate of opioid overdose deaths has been climbing in the state, with the Department of Public Health estimating 1,173 overdose deaths in 2014.
Referring to the law as something that has been “on the discussion stage for many, many a year,” House Speaker Robert DeLeo said it reflects a shift in thinking.
“We’re not punishing anyone here, we’re treating them,” DeLeo said. “That’s why I think what the governor has signed today is so important, not only to the women of this commonwealth, but in terms of setting up a sign to people throughout the country and beyond that Massachusetts is serious about treating this disease.”
Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, who has identified criminal justice reform as one of his priorities, said the signing of the bill represented “a change in direction and understanding” around addiction.
“When certain communities were where most of the activity took place, society in general saw it as a crime,” Rosenberg said. “As soon as it became a widespread situation, affecting communities all across the commonwealth, people from all economic backgrounds, just really a very diverse group of people, it suddenly changed from a crime to a disease. It’s a societal attitude that just changed based on socioeconomic and class and race lines.”
Baker, speaking to reporters earlier in the day, said that there is still work to be done on combatting drug abuse.
“I’m certainly hopeful that the Legislature’s willingness to move on this issue with respect to civil commitments at Framingham means that they’re also going to be moving quickly to deal with the rest of the elements of the legislation we filed earlier this year,” he said after announcing new job training funds at a downtown Boston event.
The change to the civil commitment law was included in an opioid bill Baker filed last fall. He allotted $5.8 million in a supplemental budget last July to move women civilly committed for substance abuse into a hospital.
Baker said that Monday marked the third time he had signed legislation aimed at fighting opioid addiction in a little over a year. Attorney General Maura Healey and Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka also spoke at the signing ceremony that several House and Senate Democrats and Republicans also attended.
“I look forward to doing this again and again and again, as we work with our colleagues on both sides to pass laws and execute reforms to make the commonwealth a better place for people who are battling addiction,” he said.
— Written by Katie Lannan
Copyright State House News Service