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Advocates’ jail diversion partnership with Mass. police departments marks 17th year

Program credited with changing outcomes of 26,000 police calls

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The Provider
September 10, 2020

In recent months, there has been a new and important focus reforming police and justice systems to make them more equitable and safer for people of color.

Many reformers are now turning to a veteran for advice in this line of work: Dr. Sarah Abbott. The co-founder and longtime director of the Jail Diversion Program at Advocates, Inc., Abbott describes the program as one which has been “changing attitudes and outcomes of police calls for 26,000 people over 17 years.”

She co-created the program with now-retired Chief Craig Davis of the Framingham Police Department, after Davis noticed pervasive patterns of repeat calls and his officer’s frustrations that the court system was unable to connect citizens who had been arrested with needed mental health or substance abuse services or resources.

“Nothing was changing by shuffling a human being through a system not set up to do this work,” she said. “Low level offenses are often a symptom of a larger mental health crisis, and (Chief Davis) had the foresight to recognize that.”

Back in 2002, the country was focused on the post-9/11 threats of terrorism and “putting a social worker in a cruiser didn’t seem like a priority,” Abbott added. “But the Framingham police saw the potential and their inviting us became the cornerstone of our success, and we worked hard to demonstrate our worth and utility to officers.”

The model has spread across Massachusetts and is now being used by 15 regional departments, under the Advocates umbrella. Some, like Framingham, are staffed almost 24/7 with one of the four Advocates clinicians embedded full time in that department.

The Provider is the newspaper of The Providers' Council.