A controversial special court session held at the Suffolk County Jail for people arrested at Mass. and Cass is ending Monday due to "low case volume" and following public pressure from city officials and advocates for those experiencing homelessness across Boston.

The special court, referred to as a 'Community Response Session,' ran for three weeks, in parallel with former acting Mayor Kim Janey’s executive order to clear all tents near Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue, where hundreds of people experiencing homelessness and substance use disorder had built an encampment.

The hearings were ended, according to a trial court spokesperson, due to "low case volume." The Suffolk County Jail allocated three holding cells for detainees arrested at Mass. and Cass, and in the majority of hearings, three cases were heard per day. At the beginning of the session, court was ordered into recess on multiple occasions until three arrests had been made later in the morning.

Though the purpose of the court session, according to a spokesperson from Janey’s office, was to place people with substance use disorder in treatment facilities and target those who commit “serious crimes” in the area, the majority of defendants brought in were arrested on outstanding warrants for minor drug charges.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, who recently announced a "pause" of the city's ongoing tent-clearing efforts at Mass. and Cass, told GBH News that the intention behind the court was to expedite the processing of outstanding warrants. But in practice, she said, the court that was created didn't hold the legal authority to fulfill that promise.

“The way that policies actually connect with results on the ground is more important than the intentions when the words are put on paper,” Wu said in an interview with GBH News Sunday. “I think it's important that there were some learnings here and then a response to say that we need to keep doing better.”

People arrested as part of the Community Response Session were held in custody at the Suffolk County Jail and brought into a makeshift courtroom for hearings, instead of being booked at a police station and sent through a traditional trial process, with the trial court order saying it would be “unsafe and inexpedient to transport individuals temporarily located in that area who must appear in court and may also be in need of medical attention.”

Several defendants told GBH News they could not access medical treatment while experiencing withdrawal symptoms in custody, including some defendants who were arrested while waiting in line for methadone treatment at facilities in the area.

Out of the 17 cases heard at the court, six people were held in custody to face warrants in other courts. Of the remaining 11 who were released, four sought voluntary treatment, according to a trial court spokesperson.

Maxwell Kolodka, 33, and public defender Josh Raisler Cohn, during a trial in a makeshift courthouse at the Suffolk County House of Correction, Monday, Nov. 1, 2021. Kolodka was brought in while waiting in line for methadone treatment and held in a jail without medical treatment.
Tori Bedford GBH News

“The push to try to set up a diversionary spot within the legal system was an important push. However, what was created wasn’t a full diversionary court,” Wu told GBH News. “It wasn't one of the special courts where the judges had the power to clear warrants from all across the state, it only applied to those with municipal warrants within Boston. And so in practice, it ended up that people had to be sent back to the other courts anyway to actually get the resolution that they needed.”

Cases that were being heard at the Community Response Session will “transition back to their respective divisions,” a trial court spokesperson said. “The Boston Municipal court will continue to communicate and collaborate with the City of Boston and state agencies to expand services to those court-involved individuals in need of services in every Division of the Boston Municipal Court.”

Anthony Benedetti, Chief Counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, says his organization had been putting pressure on the state to conduct court business at courts where warrants could be processed more immediately.

“I want to thank the Trial Court for listening to our concerns and for putting an end to a project that never really accomplished what it set out to do,” Benedetti said in a statement to GBH News. “We have said from the beginning that the stated goals of this session could have, and should have, been achieved at a physical, existing courthouse. We will continue to represent the rights of all of our clients, many of whom are experiencing homelessness and substance use issues — societal problems that should be handled outside the criminal legal system.”

Wu “paused” the tent-clearing effort on Wednesday, telling reporters that she will continue working with Dr. Monica Bharel, the former chief of the state's department of public health whom she recently appointed to clean up Mass. and Cass, and other stakeholders “to ensure that we’re bringing a public health and housing-first lens.”

Later that day, a Suffolk Superior Court judge denied the ACLU of Massachusetts a temporary restraining order to bar city officials from arresting unhoused people and removing their tents without first identifying viable alternative housing options for the people living there.

Though the ACLU lost in court to the city, Wu says she doesn't see this as a "win or a loss."

“We're all headed in the same direction," Wu told GBH News, "which is making sure that there are safe, warm homes for people all across the city and the region.”

Though the executive order continues to be paused, Wu maintained that “we never paused on the outreach, that is ongoing...but the barriers are still high for many of the shelter beds that are available, and we are now working quickly with a new team that we've assembled to take down those barriers and to create even more low-threshold housing so that people have a real alternative to being on the streets in tents.”