Mark S. Coven

The men in Mass. who need our help

By Mark S. Coven
September 10, 2009

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THE THREE men sat in court, each in custody and handcuffed. The first was on probation for driving while under the influence of liquor. At 22, he struggles with alcoholism. After he was rushed to the hospital with an extremely high blood alcohol level, his parents petitioned the court to have him civilly committed to receive treatment. While the law authorizes judges to civilly commit a person to certain programs for up to 30 days, the Massachusetts Alcohol Substance Abuse Center at Bridgewater had discharged the probationer back to the court in less than one week.

The second man stared at me with vacant eyes. He was arrested for his third trespassing charge in less than 60 days. His lawyer said he suffers from both mental illness and alcohol abuse and has been homeless. He was given a no-trespassing order from a local homeless shelter after causing a disruption. The court psychologist said that she hadn’t been able to locate a program that would accept him for treatment of his dual diagnosis of mental illness and substance abuse.

The third young man, a heroin addict, was back in court to be supervised on probation. He had just successfully completed 27 days of sobriety at the Men’s Addiction Center, funded by the Department of Public Health, and needed the referral to continue treatment.

I was taught as a child that when you squeeze a balloon, it simply causes a bulge in another part of that balloon. These three individuals are symptomatic of the hundreds of people who live each day with mental illness or substance abuse or homelessness. These problems do not simply disappear if not addressed. They manifest themselves in our prisons or on our streets.

A 2004 report from the Massachusetts Governors Commission on Corrections Reform indicates that one of every five inmates has mental health issues. The majority also have extensive histories of alcohol or other substance abuse problems. Yet recent public attention has been primarily focused on the estimated $562 million in new revenue from the increase in the sales tax rather than the $2.2 billion in spending cuts enacted by the Legislature and the governor.

This year’s budget cut 6 percent from the Department of Mental Health, which already had $36 million cut in the last fiscal year. The governor’s additional cuts will eliminate $500,000 from adult residential and day services, and $600,000 from funding hospitals and community mental health centers. These cuts may result in the closing of the 16 inpatient beds at Quincy Mental Health Center, beds that are utilized to help prevent mentally ill individuals from being admitted to state hospitals and to transition them to programs in the community.

This year’s budget cuts may also mean the closure of the Massachusetts Alcohol Substance Abuse Center in Bridgewater, 200 beds operated by the Department of Correction to provide substance abuse treatment for men. In 2008, there were over 1,500 admissions to the center. It is true that the Department of Correction requires these beds to be used to avoid overcrowding in state correctional facilities, and it may be equally true that the Department of Correction is not the most appropriate agency to provide substance abuse treatment for persons civilly committed. Even so, the end result is that there will be fewer beds for those who need treatment.

These types of budget cuts will not simply result in a loss of services to those in need; it will force those costs onto other portions of state or local budgets. Those people who suffer from mental illness or substance abuse issues who do not receive services or can not be supervised adequately by the court’s probation department will continue to offend, resulting in incarceration. The average cost to house an inmate in a state correctional facility is $47,679. That same person could be treated in the community and supervised by probation for approximately one-third of that cost.

The Legislature must address these critical items vetoed by the governor. And the governor must address the sudden loss of the 200 beds that will occur if the Massachusetts Alcohol Substance Abuse Center is closed.

As a child I also learned if you squeeze a balloon too hard it does not simply bulge, it bursts.

Mark S. Coven is the First Justice of the Quincy District Court.

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