STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
THE STATE’S TOP JUDGE AND PROSECUTORS, who are sparring over sentencing reform proposals, brought their battle to Beacon Hill on Tuesday as activists flooded the capitol building chanting “jobs not jails.”
The activists pushing for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes packed the third floor, visiting the offices of the governor, the House speaker, and the Senate president to press for legislation ahead of a Judiciary Committee hearing.
Sentencing reform has fallen off the Beacon Hill agenda as a top tier issue since Gov. Deval Patrick in August 2012 signed legislation eliminating parole eligibility for certain repeat violent offenders and making about 600 non-violent drug offenders immediately eligible for parole.
That occurred despite top Beacon Hill leaders – House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Therese Murray, then-president of the Senate — saying they planned to revisit other sentencing reform ideas.
Donnell Wright, a 50-year-old Springfield resident, was among the activists calling for sentencing reforms on Tuesday.
Wright said he served a five year mandatory minimum sentence for a nonviolent drug trafficking offense, and the conviction is blocking him from getting work.
“The judge didn’t want to send me to prison in the first place,” Wright said, leafing through court documents from his case as he stood amid the activists as they chanted. “His hands were tied.”
“We pay the judge to judge,” Wright added. “And with mandatory minimum sentencing, the judge has no say.”
[ Click here for video of the rally. Photos are available at www.statehousenews.com.]
But opponents argue relying on judicial discretion instead of mandatory minimums could mean a “return to a failed policy of the past” and higher levels of violence. Opponents also say prosecutors use their powers with precision and balance.
On Tuesday, Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley told the Judiciary Committee he supports lifting Registry of Motor Vehicles penalties for low-level drug offenders who have served their sentences and must pay to reinstate their driving privileges.
But Massachusetts does not have a problem with “overzealous” prosecutors or mass incarceration, Conley said, pointing to a report that says the state has about 1,000 empty jail cells. Under Patrick, two prison wings were closed at MCI-Norfolk, a medium security prison, he added.
“The truth is that judges have almost complete discretion over the vast majority of cases and crimes and enjoy far more discretion than their judges at the federal level and in many other states,” Conley said.
He continued, “Where the Legislature has modestly limited that discretion for murderers, child pornographers and drug traffickers whose greed drives violence and addiction – it did so for good reason and the results have borne out the wisdom of their action.”
As Conley testified, the crowd of supporters for repealing mandatory minimums appeared to grow restless, and some started to lightly boo and hiss.
The heckling drew a sharp response from the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Fernandes (D-Milford).
“It’s not a popularity contest,” Fernandes told the crowd, adding that if people continued to hiss at Conley they would be asked to leave the hearing room.
Conley, who was joined by fellow prosecutors like Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe, testified after Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, who has led the charge against mandatory minimum sentencing.
“Every time a judge is required to impose a mandatory minimum sentence that is greater than the sentence that the judge otherwise would have imposed if the judge were allowed to apply individualized, evidenced-based best practices in sentencing, the taxpayer is paying money to incarcerate that offender longer than he or she should be incarcerated,” Gants said to the committee.
Gants said the money could be “better spent on programs that are designed to combat our opiate abuse crisis,” adding that there are “too few” drug treatment beds and programs to assist those battling mental health problems, and “two few” probation officers to supervise offenders in drug courts.
Earlier in the day as activists chanted outside his door, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said he’s “particularly interested” in repealing mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses, and believes the state can do better to improve re-entry success and substance abuse and mental health treatment for inmates.
“I’m very interested in justice reinvestment, which is this national trend to identify best practices and implement them so we can have the most effective criminal justice system and get better outcomes and use our money wisely,” he said, later testifying before the committee but declining to endorse a specific piece of legislation.
Rosenberg, as he has said before, is interested in luring the Council of State Governments to Massachusetts to work with lawmakers to benchmark the criminal justice system against best practices in other states and identify ways to improve efficiency and outcomes.
According to Department of Justice and Department of Correction statistics supplied by the Baker administration, Massachusetts ranks 48th in the country, tied with Rhode Island, for the rate of incarceration with fewer than 1,000 inmates serving mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.
“Massachusetts should be proud of the fact that it has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the United States, and that jail time here is reserved for the most serious offenses,” Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement. “Nonetheless, we have work to do on re-entry, and as we have learned with opioid addiction, we need more pathways to treatment for those who are dealing with drug and substance abuse issues, and I look forward to the legislative debate.”
Rosenberg said he found the incarceration statistics to be “heartening,” but not evidence that Massachusetts can’t do better or find other ways to save and reinvest public dollars. The Senate president said Baker’s team has had discussions with the Council of State Governments and the governor deserves time to “get his bearings” on the issue.
DeLeo, in a statement through his spokesman, said he supports asking the council and the Pew Center on the States for assistance and is interested in “getting a comprehensive data-driven review of sentencing and other criminal justice policies.”
“Speaker DeLeo believes a discussion of criminal justice reform is a conversation worth having,” spokesman Seth Gitell said.
Michael Norton contributed reporting.