Editorial: Reinventing Justice in Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region our way

Published: 6/28/2018 5:20:21 PM

Editor’s Note:This is the fifth in a series of guest editorials running between now and July 4, our nation’s Independence Day. These essays were solicited by the Franklin County League of Women Voters for The Recorder from several especially knowledgeable and experienced members of our community, about issues as important to America today as they were when our country was born with our forefather’s Declaration of Independence nearly 250 years ago.

In 1811, court sessions in Greenfield were held in the hall of the old Willard Tavern.

In 1897, John “Jack” O’Neil stood before Chief Justice Albert Mason as well as Judge Franklin Goodrich Fessenden and Judge Henry Newton Sheldon at the newly built Franklin County Courthouse, located at 14 Court Square (now Greenfield Town Hall). He was accused of strangling and robbing Hattie McCloud of $13 for drinking money along a country road in Buckland. He was found guilty and hanged at the Franklin County Jail on Jan. 7, 1898 – the last person executed by hanging in the state before it was replaced by electrocution in 1900.

In 2018, Jane D. stood before Judge Beth A. Crawford, first justice of the Franklin Division of Probate and Family Court at the newly renovated Franklin County Justice Center, located at 43 Hope St. What brought Jane here? Her voluntary participation in the Franklin Family Drug Court, a program that allows her to get the broad support she needs to recover from her substance use disorder, increase parenting time with her daughter, and further her education by participating in the Growth and Recovery Through Learning Initiative, a collaboration between Greenfield Community College and the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region, to help individuals in recovery or those reentering our community post-incarceration to pursue their educational dreams.

How times have changed in the last 200 years.

Fortunately, the concept of our criminal justice system in Franklin County has steadily evolved since the region was first established on Dec. 2, 1811. And the seeds for its most recent visible changes actually began in May 1990 with the Commission on the Future of the Courts. Created by former Massachusetts Judicial Court Chief Justice Paul J. Liacos, the commission intended “to articulate a vision of a preferred judicial system and identify methods for arriving at that preferred future.” Two years later, the commission released its report, Reinventing Justice: 2022, with a stirring call to action. It sought “concerted action … by those within and outside the courts, in order “to see more clearly the link between social justice and courtroom justice, to understand the economic and demographic forces that will define the societal and justice landscapes of the next century, and to ensure that the public’s trust and confidence is regained and maintained.”

It is not surprising that a group of Franklin County leaders responded to this clarion call with clarity and urgency. Under the skilled stewardship of Lucinda Brown as the project coordinator, the Franklin County Futures Lab Task Force formed in 1993 to study how it could “reinvent justice” in Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region. This 38-member coterie, chaired by the Honorable Thomas T. Merrigan and attorney Diane H. Esser, held four town meetings and other forums throughout the county to secure community input on the future of justice in our rural area. Their hard work and dedication over 18 months yielded 12 proposals, that created the chassis for the new Franklin County Justice Center, which opened in February 2017.

The Franklin County Justice Center was intentionally designed to respond to the changing legal needs of greater Franklin County residents. It now houses six different courts (Superior, District, Probate, Housing, Juvenile, and the Family Drug Court) in one location and also provides a Court Service Center on the first floor. This free service helps people navigate the court system to help them meet a variety of their legal needs.

And while issues like alcohol use and domestic violence initially dominated the courts, the fierceness of the opioid epidemic was breathtaking as it cut a wide swath across gender, class, and socio-economic lines leaving many wrecked lives in its wake in our region. Our courts and other community entities were struggling to respond. This public health emergency led to the formation of the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region in September 2013, which is led by Probate Register John F. Merrigan, Sheriff Christopher J. Donelan, and Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan.

The Opioid Task Force works in concert with the Franklin County Justice Center as it harnesses its resources to help people put their lives back together after an interaction with the criminal justice system. For example, Superior Court refers probationers to the “Changing Lives Through Literature Program” operated by Greenfield Community College, where individuals read four works of literature in a 10-week period and meet with their judges and probation officers to discuss what they learned; the District Court runs a 10-week “Womanhood Program,” where women learn new skills to navigate their lives such as interviewing, self-defense, stress management and more; the Family Drug Court, the first of its kind in the commonwealth, works closely with individuals impacted by substance use and/or mental health disorders to help them receive necessary treatment and recovery services, reunify with their children and other family members, and obtain meaningful employment. Its work commanded the attention of our nation’s leading public health agency, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which recently awarded it a $2.1 million, five-year grant to expand its services.

The courts are also participating in Opioid Task Force funded efforts such as the “Prescribe the Y” program, which allows eligible individuals an opportunity to focus on their health and wellness as part of their recovery journey, and the “Growth and Recovery Through Learning Initiative,” which provides scholarships of up to $1,000 for individuals in recovery or who are re-entering the community post-incarceration after they complete a free 10-week College Success course at Greenfield Community College.

This is the new face of the justice system, and once again Franklin County is leading the way — doing it our way — to help our neighbors, friends, and loved ones get the help they need, when they need it the most.

This essay was written by John F. Merrigan, register, Franklin County Probate and Co-Chair of the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region.


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