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Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department releases video about incarceration

The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department creates a video, encouraging people to critically analyze the U.S. incarceration system. PHOTO BY LEXI PLINE/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department announced Friday that they produced a video in order to stimulate discussion about how the community can rethink incarceration and reduce the number of people entering correctional facilities across America.

Approximately 85 percent of people in custody at the Suffolk County House of Correction are incarcerated for drug or alcohol-related crimes, and more than 42 percent have some form of mental illness, according to an email from the Sheriff’s Department to The Daily Free Press.

The video came about after former Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Adam Foss approached Sheriff Steven Tompkins and the department to produce a video in partnership with singer John Legend’s #FreeAmerica campaign, according to Sheriff’s Department.

The organization’s mission is to “transform America’s criminal justice system,” a cause Tompkins has championed and spoken about on numerous occasions, the Sheriff’s Department wrote.

Tompkins deals with people who are incarcerated for lower level crimes, said David Rossman, director of Criminal Law Clinical Programs at the Boston University School of Law.

Rossman said people, like drug addicts on the streets, are doubly vulnerable to being brought back into the criminal justice system more than once.

“If you are addicted to something that’s illegal, like heroin for example, not only is what you do with respect to the drugs going to make you a target to be swept up in the criminal justice system, but you’re probably going to have to steal in order to get the money to buy the drugs,” Rossman said.

Rossman said the initiative addresses the public health impacts behind arrests and jail sentences as opposed to trying to intensify the criminal justice system.

“It’s a lot more politically popular for people in the legislature and people in [Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s] office to say, ‘Well, we’re going to address this problem by increasing jail sentences,’” Rossman said.

Rossman said homeless people who have mental illnesses are more likely to be targeted by the police.

“You will be considered to be trespassing, you will be disturbing the peace in some way,” Rossman said. “Your mental disability is going to make it difficult for you to stay off of the radar of the police.”

Rossman said taking mentally ill people or those with substance abuse issues out of correctional facilities for treatment is one way to improve the criminal justice system.

“It is hugely expensive to keep somebody in a locked facility,” Rossman said. “If you’re going to try and treat people, it makes a hell of a lot more sense to treat them in the community than it does to spend the money to put them in a house of correction.”

Rahsaan Hall, the director of the Racial Justice Program at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said the video is an important step toward changing the conversation about incarceration.

“Instead of incarcerating people, there should be treatment and programming available,” Hall said. “Instead of investing so much in detaining people, we need to be building people up and keeping them away from the criminal justice system.”

Hall said Tompkins’ voice is an important one to add to the conversation about incarceration in order to get the message to resonate with citizens of Suffolk County and Massachusetts.

“I appreciate Sheriff Tompkins and his efforts to raise awareness about a significant number of people, disproportionately people of color, who are detained without having been convicted of any crimes, and the tremendous waste of human capital,” Hall said. “It’s helpful when there is a law enforcement official that lifts up that same perspective.”

Several Boston residents said they were glad to see the Sheriff’s Department addressing the problems facing the criminal justice system.

Robert Morisseau, 29, of Fenway, said criminal trials should be better tailored to hear defense by way of addiction and defense by way of mental capacity.

“I think right now, with the abundance of criminal cases that are there and the limited availability of state-supported attorneys, public defenders, it encourages settlement,” Morisseau said. “Oftentimes with a settlement, it will compromise some of your right to defend yourself by way of addiction or misconduct, and I think that might be a source of the problem.”

Cess Frazier, 24, of Brighton, said those who suffer from mental illness should receive community-based treatment and support rather than being incarcerated.

“I suffer from bipolar [disorder], so me being in a prison, confined … would not be good at all,” Frazier said. “I know how it feels, so my opinion is they should not be in jail.”

Stephany Christie, 20, of Allston, said those with substance abuse issues should be treated early on to avoid future arrests for drug possession.

“Resulting to incarcerating someone for a drug problem is not the right choice,” Christie said. “I absolutely think there should be more done for treating a drug problem when it starts and not automatically putting people in jail for their first drug offense.”

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