The six candidates running for mayor of Boston met Wednesday in a forum hosted by the Suffolk County Sheriff's Department, during which they honed in on criminal justice, substance abuse disorder, mental health and homelessness.
The race for Boston's top job is set to enter its final stages this summer with the preliminary election set to take place on Sept. 14 and the general election on Nov. 2. Candidates have been appearing at a spate of forums over the past weeks and have started to pitch detailed policy proposals in an effort to attract voters.
Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins, the host of Wednesday's event, said the pandemic and previous presidential administration have highlighted inequities in the city. Tompkins said it is important to hear what changes candidates would make to bring equity to people living in the city.
"We used to lead the way. We don't anymore, we're falling down the ladder. And so we're looking at each and every one of you, or whichever one of you wins, you're gonna have all of our support because we need these changes to happen," he said. "We need fairness, we need equity. We need clarity, we need homes, we need jobs. It just isn't right. Enough is enough. We can't stand it anymore."
A portion of the forum turned into open debate on how to best deal with substance abuse disorder, mental health, and homelessness issues near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard.
City Councilor Andrea Campbell proposed hiring what she calls a "Mass and Cass chief" to work with a special unit of public health, law enforcement, mental health and recovery specialists to address the area.
"Right now, you have folks who are going out helping folks get into supportive housing, helping folks get a recovery, working on maybe decentralizing services," she said. "It's all disjointed. Everyone's in a silo, no one's sharing information with each other. So I'm saying put together a unit where it's the same folks showing up that include mental health clinicians, recovery specialists, those who work in supportive housing to help those who are homeless."
Acting Mayor Kim Janey said her administration is "treating this the same way we did with COVID." She said she is setting up a working group with stakeholders in the recovery community, people of color and business representatives, among others.
"In terms of decentralization, I don't see any communities raising their hand to say, 'Hey, we want services and treatment here,' " she said. "So a lot of people can point their fingers, I don't see anyone raising their hand to say yes, we want to embrace people who need support and services. We've got a lot of work to do."
Speaking after Janey, former Boston Chief of Economic Development John Barros said "we need to hit the streets now. We have to triple the team on the streets now and get services on the streets right now."
"And we need to do it like not in some meeting or some new group, we need to do it by doing it now," he said.
Campbell said the city doesn't need another plan or working group.
"We need action," she said. "... No one's going to raise their hand. That's a fact. No one's going to raise their hand. But leadership is critical to say even if you don't raise your hand, it is important that every neighborhood in the city of Boston respond as a collective to address these issues."
Responding to both Campbell and Barros, Janey pointed to work that "is happening on the ground," saying public health officials are reversing an average of four overdoses a day.
"This notion that nothing is happening, unfortunately, it's not true," she said. "I mean, people want to talk about that because people don't like what they see. And the truth is, this is a very complex issue. People are not magically getting well and getting jobs and getting housing. There is a plan in place."
Prompted by a question asking candidates what they would do with the judicial system and its treatment of African Americans, Barros expressed support for increasing funding for public defenders and civil legal aid organizations that provide low-income people facing civil problems with legal representation.
"We got to make sure that our public defendants have the support that they need," Barros said. "If they have trouble managing case flows, that we get the right kind of advocates in the courts for us. And then we got to have people in the right place that can vouch for us."
Campbell said it is important to make sure people are afforded due process and good lawyers when navigating the criminal justice system. She recalled when her twin brother cycled through the criminal justice system and eventually died while in custody "as a result of receiving inadequate health care."
"My twin brother, the reason he was in custody for two years, he actually cycled through a lot of public defenders who weren't that great at what they do," she said. "And so I think that's No. 1."
Responding to the same question, Janey said the city needs to provide educational and economic opportunities, dismantle the school to prison pipeline and address trauma.
"We have to continue to push and use this platform as elected officials to ensure that we are doing everything to dismantle the school to prison pipeline to make sure that we're not continuing to criminalize our folks," she said. "Yesterday was the anniversary of the killing of George Floyd and we know that the conditions that led to his death still persist to this day and so it's up to all of us to continue in that fight."
City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George said the city needs to partner with state and federal government to end violations of civil rights in the judicial system. Long before residents end up interacting with the judicial or court systems, she said, they are interacting with "systems of care continuum that are already broken."
"Whether it's our education system, whether it's our health care system, whether it's our transit system, whether it's our housing system, all of those components happen at the beginning, and we have to root all of those systems right to their core, root out that racism that exists within those systems," she said.
City Councilor Michelle Wu said she supports diversion initiatives to help keep people out of prison. At the same time, she said, there is much to be done at the city level.
"We know that the deck is stacked already because of the way information is flowing," she said. "Our Boston police, for example, keep a database where most often young men of color, Black and brown boys, if you're in the wrong place, you're wearing the wrong color, you're with a group of people, all of a sudden, you get points after points, and you will arbitrarily in this database being watched."
Rep. Jon Santiago, an emergency room doctor at Boston Medical Center, said when he treats a patient coming into the emergency room with gunshot wounds, "it is almost always a failing of the system."
"It is always, almost always, a young Black or brown male. And for me, I have to ask myself, is this a coincidence? The answer's no," he said. "It's a failure of the system, of our government."
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