The legal system can be difficult to navigate, whether you are waiting for a trial, held in corrections, on probation, or in the process of re-entering the community. You have rights in every entry or exit point in the system, and people to help you navigate. Maintaining your recovery after being justice-involved is key, and there are resources to help.  

Navigating the Legal and Court System

What to know if you: 

  • Have a case in a civil court: If you have a case in a civil court, you can’t be detained (held). Civil court includes Housing Court, Juvenile Court (child welfare cases), Probate and Family Court, and Appeals Court. To see if free legal representation for your civil legal problem is available visit Mass Legal Services
  • Receive a criminal citation (either in the mail or from a police officer): If you receive a criminal citation you will be assigned a court date for a Clerk Magistrate Hearing, also referred to as a “show cause” hearing. This is a preliminary (early) hearing where a clerk decides if a criminal charge should be issued and if you will be formally charged with a crime. You are not entitled to have representation from a defense attorney at this point, but you may bring your own lawyer.   
  • Are arrested or have a criminal complaint issued after a Clerk Magistrate Hearing: If you are arrested you will be brought to the police station or a regional lock-up facility to be “booked.” You may be released by the bail clerk or you may be held until the court is open and you are brought to court. If you are released by the bail clerk, they will tell you when you need to be in court.  
    • Your case will be heard in a District Court. The first court process is called “arraignment” and at this point you have the right to representation by a defense attorney. An attorney will be appointed to you if you meet the eligibility requirements (called “indigency criteria” by the court) and will work closely with you. For more information about public defenders in Massachusetts go to the Committee for Public Counsel Services.  

Rights, Protections, and Advocacy Tips for Appearing in Court 

  • When someone charged with a drug offense comes to court, the judge must tell the person that they are allowed to request an evaluation of whether or not they have a substance use disorder (SUD) and would benefit from treatment instead of incarceration. If you wish to exercise this right, you must make a request in writing within five days of your hearing.  
  • A judge can divert (direct) eligible people into treatment instead of incarceration. If you successfully complete a treatment program, the charges can be dismissed. Probation officers are required to screen each person charged with a drug offense for eligibility for a diversion program and to tell the judge. There are some charges that may make a person ineligible for this, such as a previous sex offense or arson charge. The District Attorney in the county where you are may have a diversion-to-treatment program that you may be eligible for.  
  • At arraignment, you have the right to ask to be placed in a treatment program while on probation. You can also request to be diverted through a drug court, which would require you to complete a treatment program instead of a two-year sentence. There are certain eligibility requirements for participating in a drug court session. You will want to work closely with your attorney to determine the best path for you.  
  • If you are released after your hearing, there may be conditions from the court you need to meet when you’re released. If you do have conditions, you will be assigned a probation officer who will communicate with you about what you need to do during the period of time before the next stage of your case.  

Navigating the Correctional and Justice System

If you are pre-trial for a criminal case, you will most likely be held in a House of Correction, however you may be held in a Department of Correction facility.  

Houses of Correction (HOCs) facilities are under the jurisdiction (rule) of the county Sheriff. These HOCs provide treatment options for people with opioid use disorder (OUD): Essex, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire, Middlesex, Norfolk, and Suffolk. 

Department of Correction (DOC) facilities are under the jurisdiction (rule) of the state. These DOCs provide treatment for people with OUD: MCI Cedar Junction, MCI Framingham, South Middlesex Correctional Center, and Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center (MASAC). 

Treatment programs “behind the wall” (in corrections facilities) can be continued into re-entry services.  

What to know if you are sentenced: 

When your case is closed, you may be released with 1) no conditions, 2) sentenced to probation supervision, 3) sentenced to a correctional facility, or 4) you may have what is called a “split sentence.” A split sentence is when you serve a period of time in corrections and have a term of probation when you are released. If your sentence includes probation supervision, you will work closely with your probation officer to meet the conditions of your sentence.  

  • You have a right to choose your treatment if you are imprisoned and in a minimum or medium security facility. 
  • You have the right to talk with your probation/parole officer or court-appointed advocate and appointed judge about what kind of treatment you want to get, whether it’s clinical or non-clinical treatment. Your probation/parole officer must communicate this to the judge. 
  • There are multiple treatment options available in some corrections units.  

Re-entering the Community After Incarceration:

  • You will want to work closely with the healthcare and treatment team, as well as your correctional and re-entry caseworkers, to develop a re-entry plan that will help you transition back to the community. Your plan may include help with:  
    • Health insurance enrollment 
    • Refills for prescription medications 
    • Appointments with health care, substance use disorder, and/or mental health treatment services 
    • Connections to housing 
    • Military and/or social security benefits 
    • Support for reconnecting with children and family 
    • Workforce opportunities 
    • Relapse and overdose prevention planning 
    • Recovery support 
    • Referrals get to Narcan (naloxone) 
    • Anything else you may need to help you succeed after your release.  
  • You may be released on parole and/or probation supervision: Probation and parole are two different programs that both provide supervision in the community. You will work closely with your probation and/or parole officer to understand and meet the conditions of your supervision. They are trained to help connect you to resources that include treatment, housing, employment supports, and other re-entry programs. 
  • You may be released from incarceration without probation and/or parole supervision. Not all individuals re-entering the community are assigned a parole officer, so there are re-entry programs people can use. Ask the re-entry team at the correctional facility if there are any post-release re-entry services that you can use after you leave the facility.  
  • Know your rights around privacy and disclosure. You can request a copy of your Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI), and you have the right to “seal” your CORI if you meet the eligibility criteria so that no one else can look at it.   
    • A judge in the court that handled your case has the power to seal a first-time drug possession conviction where you did not violate (break) any court orders connected to being on probation or a “CWOF” (continuance without a finding). The court orders might include going to drug treatment or doing community service. 
      • Under state law, you have to show “good cause” to seal a record. To show there is “good cause” to seal records, you need only show there is a present or possible future disadvantage that stems from your criminal record.  
        • Things a judge can consider are:  
          • A lot of time has passed since the case was filed against you 
          • You are sober and have made efforts to rehabilitate yourself  
          • You successfully completed probation in your case(s) 
          • You have other evidence of rehabilitation from the date of the offense or dismissal
    • Your privacy is protected by state and federal laws in areas like housing and employment to protect you from discrimination.  
      • Under the “Ban the Box” law, employers cannot ask about a criminal record at any point in the application process. Employers are generally permitted to ask about felony convictions and some misdemeanor convictions during the hiring stage (after the initial job application), but most employers are not permitted to ask about any of the following during any point in the hiring process:  
        • criminal cases that did not end in conviction  
        • an arrest or detention 
        • first convictions for drunkenness 
        • simple assault  
        • speeding 
        • minor traffic violations 
        • affray, or disturbance of the peace  
        • misdemeanor convictions where the date of conviction or release from incarceration was 3 or more years ago (unless there were subsequent convictions) 
        • juvenile court records 
        • sealed or expunged records 
  • Know what to look for when it comes to discrimination for being justice-involved. It can be subtle and hard to name. Here are some examples: 
    • Being denied housing because of your CORI or recovery status.  Landlords have limited access to your CORI, and may deny you housing because you have a criminal record, but housing providers that automatically reject all applicants with criminal records might be violating state and federal civil rights laws because using criminal records in this way can have a disproportionate effect on protected groups, including racial minority groups and people with disabilities. For more information about CORI protections in the housing process, please see the Attorney General’s Guide to Criminal Records in Employment and Housing
    • Not being referred by your attorney or judge to drug courts if you are being tried for drug-related charges or have a substance use disorder. Drug courts that divert people from criminal courts still serve many more white people than Black, Indigenous, or other people of color. Be sure to ask about “diversion options” for court, including drug courts. 

Resources for Justice-Involved Individuals 

  • The Sequential Intercept Model created by Policy Research Associates, which identifies resources and gaps for justice-involved people. 
  • Request your CORI online at the Massachusetts Department of Criminal Justice Information Services.  
  • Each facility uses a certified Housing Search Specialist to access residential programs, shelters, and sober houses as options to consider while working on re-entry plans. They can use a database of housing options for releasing inmates at risk for homelessness in MA. 
  • Department of Corrections also partners with MassHealth to provide health care to people who are previously incarcerated.
  • There are options available for people living in incarceration who are looking for tailored recovery programs. See the list here.  
  • Coming Home has a list of re-entry programs for people in Greater Boston. 
  • Mass Legal Help has a “Know Your CORI Rights” toolkit that offers guidance on sealing a CORI. 
  • Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination has a fact sheet on CORI issues and employment discrimination.  
  • The Boston Bar Association offers a clinic where free attorneys will assist individuals in the Boston area in sealing their criminal record.  

Navigating Section 35 and Involuntary Commitment

Section 35 

If all other treatment and recovery options have been tried, Section 35 is a Massachusetts law that allows a qualified person to request a court order for someone to be civilly committed and treated involuntarily (against their will) for an alcohol or substance use disorder. Under section 35, a person can be held up to 90 days. This should only be used as a last resort, if used at all.  

Who can “section” someone (use Section 35 to have a person committed to treatment)? 

  • Only a “qualified petitioner” can ask the court to commit someone to treatment under Section 35. This includes: a police officer, physician, spouse, blood relative, guardian, or court official. 

What happens when a person is sectioned? 

  • Summonsing: The court will review the petition and decide whether to issue a summons or a “warrant of apprehension.” If summonsed, a person will receive an order to appear in court. If the court believes the person is an immediate physical danger or will not voluntarily come to the court, a police officer will be sent to find the person, take them into custody, and deliver the person to court. Law enforcement often uses handcuffs and shackles when transporting the person to court and when they are in court.  
  • Representation and Evaluation: Once the person is brought to court, they will be appointed an attorney who will represent them in court. Then the court clinician will evaluate them. The clinician will also interview the petitioner.  
  • Hearing and Decision: After hearing testimony and argument, the judge will decide if there is “clear and convincing evidence” that the person has a substance use disorder (SUD) and is at risk of harming themselves or others as a result of their SUD. If the judge decides the person will be committed, they will be taken directly to treatment from the courthouse. If the judge decides the person does not meet the standard for commitment, they will be released.  
  • Detaining: Once committed, an individual will be sent to wherever there are beds available. The person submitting the petition cannot choose and has no control over which facility the person will go to, which may include a house of correction. You can find a list of all treatment locations here.  
  • If you are being sectioned (committed under Section 35), you still hold these rights:  
    • The right to be represented by an attorney 
    • The right to refuse the medical examination the judge requests  
    • The right to choose your own witnesses for testimony on your behalf 

Resources for Section 35

Committee for Public Counsel Services provides legal representation to people who can’t afford an attorney.