SUFFOLK COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY DAN CONLEY on Tuesday pushed back against efforts by Chief Justice Ralph Gants and members of the Senate to do away with mandatory minimum sentences and give more discretion in handing out punishment to judges.

In remarks during and after a panel discussion at a daylong conference on criminal justice reform at Boston College Law School, Conley said crime and incarceration rates are dropping in Massachusetts and residents of Boston’s neighborhoods feel safer. He said mandatory minimum sentences are part of the reason why.

“It’s not the only reason, but it’s one reason, and I don’t see any reason to backtrack at this point,” Conley said.

Conley also pointed to the death toll from opioid overdoses, which last year claimed the lives of 1,465 people with another 562 fatalities suspected of being opioid-related, according to a state Department of Public Health study released last week.

“In the midst of an opioid crisis, are we going to be more lenient on heroin traffickers?” Conley asked.

Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley
Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley

Conley was also critical of Gants, who gave the keynote address at the conference at Boston College Law School and called for an end to mandatory minimums except in cases involving those charged with murder and multiple offenses for operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol. Conley described Gants as “being more political than any chief justice I’ve ever seen, frankly, in my 30-plus years of practice.”

Conley said Supreme Judicial Court justices are appointed essentially for life so that they can remain independent and stand above politics. But he said Gants is aggressively pushing into the political arena, pushing for an end to mandatory minimum sentences.

“This is really the first chief justice that I’ve seen get out there and be actively political,” Conley said. “Frankly, I will tell you that I’ve heard from other judges that it’s a bit unseemly. I’m not saying stifle the chief justice. I respect him. But it is a bit different in what we’ve seen with the chief justice being so aggressive in getting into the political arena.”

In his remarks during a panel discussion on the possibility for sentencing reform, Conley said repealing mandatory minimum sentences would have little impact on the state’s overall prison population and would not erase racial disparities in correctional facilities. He said the real question in the debate over mandatory minimum sentences is who should have discretion – the judges who hand out sentences or the prosecutors who file the charges and must decide whether to seek a mandatory minimum.

“My feeling is I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I’ve got a pretty good handle on who’s driving violence in our community. Judges don’t have that same handle, with all due respect,” he said. “Judges are more likely to make a significant mistake that could have a big impact on the community.”

Conley said it is OK to say judges shouldn’t sentence below a minimum level in dealing with certain crimes. “It’s not onerous,” he said.

The district attorney also said repealing mandatory minimums would have little impact on the state’s prison population. He said 8,628 people are currently incarcerated at Department of Correction facilities. He said only 868, or 10 percent, are there under mandatory drug sentences.

Andrea Cabral, the former sheriff of Suffolk County and a state secretary of public safety under governor Deval Patrick, was in the audience at the panel discussion and suggested Conley was understating the problem. She said prosecutors often use the leverage of mandatory minimums to pressure defendants into pleading out to lesser charges. She said those inmates are in prison in effect because of the mandatory minimum prison sentences.

Cabral also said these negotiations around mandatory minimums between prosecutors and defendants are where bias creeps in and helps explain why prisons are filled predominantly with black and Hispanic men.

Michael O’Keefe, the district attorney for the Cape and Islands who was also in the audience during the panel discussion, said in 2014 that the state’s DAs reviewed the criminal records of the 1,462 people jailed on drug charges under mandatory and non-mandatory sentences. He said those 1,462 inmates were responsible for a total of 58,000 arraignments, or 40 per person on average. He said those numbers suggest defendants are not being prosecuted unfairly.

“We are incarcerating the people who need to be incarcerated in the Commonwealth,” he said.

Conley also pushed back against the view that mandatory minimum sentences are responsible for the racial disparity in prisons. Conley said he believes the state’s prisons are being unfairly blamed for the racial disparity when in fact the state’s many other safety-net systems have failed. He noted 45 percent of inmates read at a ninth grade level and 38 percent suffer from some form of mental illness, and the criminal justice system is left to pick up the pieces.

“The criminal justice system is asked to do too much,” he said. “It’s easy to say let’s repeal mandatory minimums and go home. Baloney.”