Lawmakers weighing a proposal to end the practice of sending men civilly committed for substance use to jail or prison heard Thursday from western Massachusetts officials who urged them not to act in a way that would leave their region without treatment beds.

Hampden County Sheriff Nicholas Cocchi asked lawmakers to consider carving out his treatment facilities if they advance a bill that would prohibit sending men civilly committed for substance use to correctional settings. Hampden County Sheriff Nicholas Cocchi asked lawmakers to consider carving out his treatment facilities if they advance a bill that would prohibit sending men civilly committed for substance use to correctional settings.

Hampden County Sheriff Nicholas Cocchi's Stonybrook Stabilization and Treatment Centers in Springfield and Ludlow are the only facilities in the state's four western counties with beds for men who have been ordered into substance use disorder treatment by a court, Longmeadow Sen. Eric Lesser said.

"Simply put, if this legislation becomes law and this facility closes, hundreds of people will potentially be put on the street," Lesser told the Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery. "It would be a humanitarian emergency in my opinion, in Western Massachusetts."

Under a state law known as Section 35, judges can involuntarily commit for treatment someone whose alcohol or drug use puts themselves or others at risk. The law allows for men to be sent to a correctional facility, while women, under a 2016 law, can only be sent to health care facilities.

Rep. Ruth Balser and Sen. Cindy Creem filed bills (H 1700, S 1145) that would make it so a civilly committed person of any gender can only be sent to "a secure facility approved by the department of public health or the department of mental health." Committee chairs Rep. Marjorie Decker and Sen. Julian Cyr are among the legislation's co-sponsors.

"There is absolutely no reason why we should be now recognizing that women deserve to get treatment in a health care facility but men should not," Balser said. "It makes no sense."

Massachusetts is the only state that allows judges to send civilly committed people with substance use disorder to correctional settings, Friedman said. She said people who are in prisons for addiction treatment can experience harsh living conditions, trauma, shame and difficulty managing the recovery process.

"It is counter to everything we should be thinking about as people who care about health care," said Friedman, an Arlington Democrat. "We would never, ever say 'You know what? We've run out of heart beds, our prisons, our jails have some beds, let's open a cardiac facility in one of the prisons.' We would never do that. Everybody would look at us like, 'I'm sorry, I probably didn't hear that right.' This is the same thing."

Judge John Payne, the presiding judge of Springfield District Court, told the committee he wanted to "implore" them not to take any action that would close Cocchi's treatment facilities. He said his court has received 498 mental health petitions so far this calendar year -- already outpacing all of 2018 -- and the "vast majority" of those are Section 35 petitions.

"Please take no action that eliminates that facility, because we have nothing else," he said. "I'm not trying to be melodramatic but we would lose people if that happens."

Cocchi said his facility has 165 beds available for patients with no other options. It has a current population of 125 people. His program runs an average of 48 days, he said, as opposed to an average stay of 21 to 24 days at other facilities.

Decker asked Cocchi about what it means to have law enforcement play a role in treatment for people who have not committed a crime, and if he believes the dynamic is equivalent for law enforcement across different parts of the state. Cocchi said no.

"But I would ask, don't throw the baby out with the bathwater, please" he said. "If we're doing it right, acknowledge that. Carve us out."

Rep. Michael Finn, a West Springfield Democrat, said he remembered voting to remove women in Section 35 from the correctional setting, telling the committee he believed strongly that those women deserved better opportunities.

He said he now regrets that vote because "what I effectively did to the constituents of western Mass. that I represent was I removed all services for women from the western part of the state." Civilly committed women in western Massachusetts now have to travel hours east for treatment, Finn said.

"To me it is absolutely indefensible that western Massachusetts could be put on the verge of losing, for all intents and purposes, all beds," Westfield Rep. John Velis said.

Decker, a Cambridge Democrat, said the bill is not being presented because anyone wants to remove access to "life-saving addiction recovery services," and that the debate is about whether the criminal justice system is the appropriate place for them. Cyr, a Truro Democrat, said the committee is "deeply committed" to making sure it meets the needs of people across the state.

Balser, a Newton Democrat, suggested that the committee could add to the bill a provision that would "make explicit" what the sponsors assumed -- that new capacity would be added in the same region where any Section 35 beds closed.

Friedman, who sits on the committee, asked Sen. James Welch of West Springfield what he thought of that idea.

"When you come from Western Massachusetts, many promises are often made to you, so until that happens, I would say that I wouldn't answer that question," Welch said. "I would say that until there's a facility that meets that standard, it's hard to say, and I would put the sheriff and Stonybrook facilities up against any facility in Massachusetts."