Bar association takes up heroin discussion
In its first legislative breakfast in years, the Franklin County Bar Association had planned to make a pitch for increased funding for the court-appointed lawyers. But the region’s addiction crisis, and the need for additional state funding and anti-addiction programs took center stage.
The timing is right for funding requests, as the House of Representatives begins preparing for budget negotiations beginning April 28, Rep. Stephen Kulik told the 30 or so lawyers present for the Greenfield Grille gathering.
The timing is also important, said Sen. Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, as the Senate Opioid Task Force prepares to propose legislation in coming weeks to deal with what’s being recognized statewide as a critical problem.
Sen. Paul Mark, D-Peru, has already filed a budget amendment that would continue funding for the new Franklin County Opioid Task Force, said Kulik, D-Worthington, and both the House and Senate are likely to try to beef up funding to stem a worsening problem.
“It really is a crisis,” said Greenfield lawyer Timothy J. Flynn. “The real issue is there’s no resources in the state” for emergency addiction treatment centers other than about 30 beds each at men’s and women’s facilities in Brockton and New Bedford, respectively.
“If their beds are full, which seems like all the time, you send somebody to prison,” said Flynn, describing the process under state law Chapter 123, Section 35 that allows courts to involuntarily commit someone for inpatient treatment for up to 90 days if substance abuse puts themselves or others at risk.
“The whole process, from the very beginning to the very end, its incredibly underfunded,” said Flynn. “The system is entirely broke,” and it was long before the opiate crisis emerged. “Just getting (additional) beds is putting a Band-Aid on this. There has to be better solution.”
Rosenberg said, “We hear it, we understand it, we’re working on it, but we didn’t create the problem.’
Instead, he pointed at voters who in 2010 repealed a state sales tax on beer, proceeds of which had been targeted to substance abuse programs at a time when coffers were being drastically hurt by the recession.
“They removed the $160 million the Legislature voted to create for services you’re now pointing out rightly are not there,” added Rosenberg.
Flynn suggested that the pharmaceutical companies that promoted widespread use of the opiate painkillers that contributed to the crisis should be taxed to pay for the programs, although Rosenberg suggested that such a tax would merely be passed on to their customers.
Mark added that the problem went beyond money, to the underlying attitude of “a time when we need to be tough on crime, when there’s a war on drugs. ... It’s now gone to the middle class, to everybody. Someone we know is addicted to these prescription drugs and turning to heroin. And that’s changing the conversation.”
Rosenberg told the gathering, “We’re going to try, as part of the budget process, to do the best we can to try to get more resources in,” but warned, “There are a lot of competing, compelling interests.”
Among those interests are increased funding for salaried public defenders to visit the Greenfield courts once weekly as well as for local attorneys to be paid $50 an hour to represent indigent defendants — a level that lawyer Barry Auskern said hasn’t been increased in at least nine years.
Kulik said the governor’s budget has added funding to that account, and the House Ways and Means budget has added $5 million for additional hiring in the trial court, as well as $2.7 million for additional drug courts, “mental health” courts and a pilot veteran’s court, plus a 4 percent hike in funding for district attorneys.
Community Legal Aid Managing Attorney Jennifer Deiringer said $17 million is needed “to bring us back to where we were before the economic debacle happened.”