Essex County Sheriff Frank G. Cousins Jr. told the Haverhill City Council his department will not be moving forward with a plan to open a prerelease home for nine prison inmates on Fifth Avenue in Haverhill.
Councilors and residents only recently became aware of the plans, prompting an hour-long discussion at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting. The Essex County Sheriff’s Department has opened prerelease centers in neighboring cities such as Lawrence and Salisbury and there is currently a female-only home on Webster Avenue in Haverhill. Cousins said there has never been an incident at that location.
Lack of communication has been at the forefront of this controversy as councilors only became aware of the plan as recently as last Wednesday. “I found out by accident,” said Council Vice President Melinda E. Barrett.
“I’m not sure what the process was as far as the setup for this,” she added. “I realize these services have to be rendered. I don’t know that Fifth Ave is the best place to be rendering them.”
Sheriff Cousins, who made a brief statement to the Council, says the house would look and feel like any other property on the street. “We’re treating this like any other citizen who wants to rent a room,” said Sheriff Cousins.
“We’re not looking to have a halfway house or a group home. We’re looking for one of these apartments to have two to three people in them to pay the rent. Will the police department and the City of Haverhill be notified? Yes,” he added.
According to Cousins, none of the inmates have been convicted of violent crimes, only quality of life crimes involving drugs and alcohol.
“I feel we almost owe you an apology,” said Councilor Mary Ellen Daly O’Brien, speaking to Cousins.
“I think it’s because we have become overly-sensitive in the runaway situation we have with group homes that have taken up a lot of our police time, and it’s made the neighborhood very, very upset because of the ongoing problems,” she added.
Late last week, Councilor Andy Vargas contacted residents of the Fifth Avenue neighborhood to alert them of the plans, resulting in over a dozen of them to be in attendance at Tuesday’s night’s meeting. “We never got a communication,” said one resident, who also added there are bus stops and day cares in the area.
Councilor Thomas J. Sullivan thanked Cousins.
“I think we’re showing the residents in that section of Haverhill that we care about them,” Sullivan said. “I hope the trend in the future is that some of the smaller towns (Groveland, Georgetown) will also accept some of these homes.”
Following the severe backlash from the Fifth Avenue community and from city councilors, Sheriff Cousins showed no resistance in pulling his proposal until a better conversation can be had. “We won’t force anything on anybody,” said Cousins, who will be retiring at the end of the year.