Last week, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed H. 3944 (now H. 3947), An Act Relative to Substance Abuse, Treatment, Education and Prevention. The bill will, if passed, aim to curb the increasing numbers of opioid addictions and overdoses in Massachusetts. The House and the Senate, which passed a different version of the bill, will now wrangle over a final version. But there is one thing that both bodies agreed on: that our state is long overdue to end the incarceration of women who have been civilly committed for substance addiction. To that end, the House and the Senate separated out H. 3956, an Act Relative to Civil Commitments for Alcohol and Substance Use Disorders, and sent it to Governor Charlie Baker, who enacted the bill into law on January 25, 2016.
The law brings long overdue reform to a troubling system of civil commitment in Massachusetts. G.L. c. 123, section 35 is the law that governs the civil commitment of people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs. People in their lives—from family members to police officers—can petition the court to civilly commit a person they believe to be addicted. If the court agrees, it can commit that person to a treatment facility for up to ninety days. The problem is that the treatment facilities in Massachusetts are often filled to capacity, especially the ones that accept civil commitments. When the beds are full, the courts don’t stop committing people. Instead, the courts shunt them off to prison. Men are sent to Bridgewater, a minimum security facility where they continue to get addiction treatment comparable to the treatment they might have received in a hospital. They’re in prison—despite not having committed, or being charged with committing, a crime—but at least they are getting treatment.