By Aram Arkun
BOSTON — Peter Koutoujian is one of the best known Armenian politicians in Massachusetts, and appears more and more as a spokesman for Armenians on a national level. He has been playing an important role in the field of law enforcement as sheriff of Middlesex County, and is often involved in policy discussions statewide. In a recent interview, Koutoujian spoke about some key aspects of his work.
At the core of his job is the care, custody and control of pre-trial detainees and inmates sentenced for comparatively short terms from the 12 district courts of Middlesex County, as well as the preparation for their re-entry into society. On average there are approximately 500-600 of each group. Koutoujian said that people end up in his facilities due to a myriad of reasons that lead to criminality, including substance abuse and addiction, mental health issues, educational failures, joblessness, homelessness and the wrong social networks. He said, “We take people off the street and hold them securely, protecting society from them, but protecting themselves as well. When they come to us we have a unique opportunity to take stock of what led to their criminality and design a plan while they are staying with us to address those causes.”
On the Middlesex sheriff’s website, Koutoujian explains to the public his preferred approach: “If we give inmates the chance to develop a skill or increase their education level, they will have previously non-existent tools to help them get a job, pay their debts, earn a living and cultivate the self-esteem and pride to be productive citizens.”
He explained that he felt that while there is a certain amount of retribution that must be exacted, and there are bad people who need to be kept in jail as long as possible, but that there is much more that should be done for inmates which will reduce the odds that they will engage in criminal activity once more. He said, “The issue of corrections has turned 180 degrees from the 1980s. The lessons of the 1980s showed that simply throwing people into jail does not work — we cannot incarcerate our way out of crime, or reduce crime through incarceration.”
The old standard “war on crime” approach has not only taken a significant toll on individuals, their families and their communities, but also cost taxpayers a lot, since treating individuals in the community costs exponentially much less than the over $50,000 per person cost in prison. Recidivism rates are also much lower with the new approach. Koutoujian said, “This has been proven. Society seems to be moving in this direction since you see more and more presidential and gubernatorial candidates speaking in this way. Texas is a great example, ahead of all other states in reducing incarceration rates and crime, as well as taxpayer expense.”
The inmates are struggling with problems connected to broader issues that are hard for American society to address. Koutoujian pointed out that “a third of our inmate population is treated for mental health needs, while 80-90 percent are self-reported drug or alcohol addicts. This year  alone we will have conducted more than 2,000 detoxification processes for those who come in from the street. There are 40-50 a week all year long, as 43 percent of all our new admitted need to be detoxed. Of those, 17 percent are for opiates alone, with 54 percent for other substance abuse, including opiates.”
Koutoujian stresses that “The opiate problem is growing exponentially. The number of addicts has grown 10 percent last year alone. There were 256 deaths in 2014 from addiction. It is really the overprescribing of opiates that leads to their illegal usage, and leads to heroin [addiction as the next stage]. Eighty percent of heroin abuse starts with prescription pills.”
To deal with this situation, the Sheriff’s office uses cutting-edge programs such as an intensive community therapeutic model. Some programs it runs itself, while others are done through vendors like AdCare (Alcohol and Drug Care Hospital). Most people are unaware that these programs are largely paid for by the inmates themselves through their commissary or canteen purchases, as well as through grants from private, state and federal grant money outside of the regular budget of the office.
In addition to the substance abuse programs, inmates are prepared for returning to the outside world through high school equivalency degree programs, vocational training, programs for veterans, and parenting programs. Koutoujian said, “Our programming is very effective. We are just starting the early statistical analysis, but we think the more programming you have, the less recidivism.” While some programs existed before Koutoujian came to office in 2011, he said that the majority were added afterwards.
New inmates are screened carefully concerning gang affiliations, and simple inspections of tattoos, piercings and scars often can help clarify turf issues as well as solve crimes. Koutoujian said, “there is no issue of gang control in our prisons. We are on top of it.”
Middlesex County will be in compliance by sometime in 2016 with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which had passed 10 years ago. Careful attention is paid to issues of assault and harm, as well as suicide. The correctional staff is highly trained and misbehavior on its part prevented. Koutoujian said, “You must treat the prison population with respect, keep them occupied and exercised. In this way they can finish their stay without much problem. If there is abuse going on, that creates an unsafe atmosphere for the rest of the staff too.”
Koutoujian has been concerned also with female inmates. He has been trying to create a regional women’s facility in Framingham in order to avoid the problems created by housing women sentenced for more serious crimes by the state together with women in prison for lighter sentences in Middlesex Country. This entails a large financial expenditure for a comparatively small part of the prison population, so it will probably take a long time to achieve this goal. Meanwhile, his office is the first one in the state to provide programming specifically targeted to female county inmates housed in the present state facility.
Koutoujian has been actively promoting his general approach to incarceration wherever suitable. He said, “We try to influence more decision makers on the federal and state levels in this direction and give support for this method. I think it is just part of my job.”
In October, he became a founding member of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration. He was the only member of this national group who was an office holder in Massachusetts. There were over 130 prominent district attorneys, attorney generals, sheriffs, chiefs of police and other members from around the country pushing for alternatives to unnecessary arrests and prison sentences. They pointed out that with 5 percent of the world’s population the US contains 25 percent of the world’s population of prisoners, a disproportionately large figure.
The group’s inaugural press conference received front page coverage in the New York Times and other national media. Timothy Williams, a Times correspondent, said that the group’s stance represented “an abrupt public shift in philosophy for dozens of law enforcement officials who have sustained careers based upon tough-on-crime strategies.”
Koutoujian was one of the members of the group to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House after the press conference.
Koutoujian feels that their approach is a non-partisan one. For example, he participated in a bipartisan summit on prison reform and reentry initiatives in Jacksonville, Fla. in November with Allison DeFoor, who is a reverend and had been a candidate for lieutenant-governor of Florida in the past and a former sheriff. Koutoujian said, “We spoke the same language, though he was a hardcore Republican and I a Democrat. We were in lockstep on many issues….No longer are correction issues partisan ones. Among our sheriffs [in Massachusetts], five or six are Republican, but we all speak the same language.”
This non-partisanship is one reason why Koutoujian has a cordial working relationship with Republican Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts. Just as importantly, the two have known each other for some twenty years, and from the very beginning, Koutoujian was left with a positive feeling. When in the state legislature, Koutoujian had to testify before the Board of Higher Education. Koutoujian said, “I was immediately impressed by him. I was a brand new state representative, and he was a very highly regarded Secretary of Administration and Finance, one of the most powerful positions in the state, and yet he treated me with incredible respect and dignity, and I will never forget that.” Since that point, their paths crossed periodically. For example, while Koutoujian was chairman of the Joint Committee on Health Care of the Massachusetts legislature, Baker had to testify before this committee as president and CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare over a number of years.
Koutoujian has participated as a speaker in a number of events connected with the governor. For example, in July, 2015, Koutoujian addressed members of the Governor’s Council on prison issues, addiction and treatments. On December 8, both Koutoujian and the governor spoke as panelists at Roxbury Community College at an event on substance abuse and mental health care organized by Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tomkins. A week later, the governor hosted the premiere of a movie on opiate addiction, “Heroin: Cape Cod, USA,” and he asked Koutoujian, among others, to address to the crowd.
More significantly, in November, Koutoujian was one of eight sheriffs out of 14 in the state to support Baker’s bill on opiates, which would give hospitals the power to force treatment for up to 72 hours on addicts who are a danger to themselves or others, and to limit first-time opiate prescriptions to no more than a 72-hour supply. Some civil liberties advocates and doctors and dentists have criticized these restrictions.
Koutoujian said in response that “this is not that drastic a measure. People now can be committed for mental health reasons. It is an extension of this. They can walk out any time they want to after the 72 hours. It stabilizes the person a bit and allows a family to put in place the resources to treat the addiction. It provides a day or two of breathing room for treatment programs.”
As far as the prescription limitations are concerned, Koutoujian said he believes it is necessary to avoid overprescribing so that extra pills do not sit in medicine cabinets. Reassessment can always take pace after a short period of time. The danger is that prescription pill abuse will lead the way to opiate problems.
Koutoujian, incidentally, said despite the large Armenian population in the county, unlike Los Angeles, there are not very many Armenian prisoners. There is no statistical breakdown based on ethnicity, so it is not possible to get a complete figure, he said. Koutoujian said that on the day before our first interview in mid-December 2015, there were four inmates who were born in the Republic of Armenia. He said, “I pass through and somebody says parev, or inch bes es.” His point, he said, was that “the Armenian-American community is not immune from what is going on in society at large. I would venture to guess that ethnic Armenians – Armenian-Americans — probably have lower rates of criminal behavior and substance abuse issues, but we are not immune from it. I know families that have reached out to me about loved ones with mental health issues and addiction. They have a great deal of shame and reach out with desperation.”
When Koutoujian was asked about the effects of President Obama’s recent executive order on gun control, he answered, “I find that the executive action is not going to impact gun safety significantly, but it still is something positive.” He said that the more important action should be taken by Congress. Loopholes in background checks must be eliminated and people prevented from buying a large number of guns at any one time. He stressed that “These are not efforts to take anyone’s guns away, but to be sure of who is getting the guns.”