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New courthouse job created to help people

GREENFIELD — A little space could prove a big help in keeping addicts who find themselves in trouble with the law from falling through the cracks.

Moving from the confines of the old courthouse on Hope Street into the relatively spacious 101 Munson St. for the duration of the courthouse renovation, the court is adding an outreach position.

“When people first appear before the court with a family member, they’re like a deer in the headlights. Their son or daughter was involved in drugs and they don’t know where to turn,” said Register of Family and Probate Court John Merrigan.

Merrigan, a founder of the area Opioid Education and Awareness Task Force, pushed for the creation of the court services center. A full-time staffer will begin in the role of court services coordinator in the first couple weeks of March, working out of an office in the law library.

Addiction is explicit or implicit in most court business, but isn’t always addressed.

Interviewed last year, Greenfield District Court Presiding Judge William F. Mazanec III estimated that 80 to 90 percent of crimes in district court result from substance abuse, based on his impression from both sides of the bar as a prosecutor, defense lawyer and judge.

Last week, he said the situation hasn’t improved.

“The problem since I last talked to you last year has just exploded, and I’ve called it and I will call it a tsunami, because that’s what it appears to be in the courtroom and I’m out there every day,” Mazanec said.

More and more young people are coming before the court on heroin possession charges, for shoplifting or strings of thefts that ultimately reveal an underlying drug problem, he said, cautioning that only a small percentage of people suffering from addiction interact with the court system.

The court service coordinator’s job will be to serve as a touchstone for people and the families of people dealing with issues underlying the charges that bring them to court, whether addiction or something else.

“Court is about helping people, not hurting people, at least here in Franklin County. We’re not out to put people in jail, we’re out to, if you’re stuck in a rut with these underlying issues, we want people to look at us and know they can come to the court service center, that there is help and they need to ask for it,” Merrigan said.

A significant part of the coordinator’s job will be locating and connecting with what resources exist. Merrigan said he has been struck by how many people at the task force meetings — which see law enforcement and medical professionals and recovery advocates from three counties — didn’t know what one another did.

Merrigan sees the court services office as one strand in what needs to be a broader safety net for individuals and families suffering from addiction or mental illness.

“The big picture is something needs to give somewhere in the state and country. There’s death and destruction in the commonwealth every day of the week, and there needs to be a response,” Merrigan said.

Budget cuts have leveled mental health and addiction programs in Massachusetts, beginning under Gov. Mitt Romney’s administration in the early 2000s, and they have not recovered.

“Ten years later, we’re flat-footed and we need to think up a way to change that,” Merrigan said.

Community forum today

The task force is sponsoring a community forum today at 1 p.m. in the Greenfield Community College main building, 1 College Drive, with legislators and recovery specialists and the public to discuss potential responses to the heroin and prescription pill abuse problem.

You can reach Chris Curtis at: ccurtis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

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