STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
GOV. CHARLIE BAKER’S new bill targeting drug dealers make him a flip-flopper, according to gubernatorial candidate Setti Warren, who appears to be taking a stance against the governor’s proposal to hit deaWlers of lethal drugs with mandatory minimum prison sentences.
On Wednesday, the governor proposed legislation (S 2158) defining the illegal distribution of drugs resulting in death as manslaughter, a crime that under his bill would be punishable by a minimum of five years in prison, the same punishment facing an under-the-influence driver who kills a person.
Baker said his plan helps address the rising tide of opioid and heroin deaths by giving prosecutors “the ability to better respond to new drugs coming into our communities, and to hold accountable drug dealers who put profits over the lives of other people.”
But Warren, the Democratic mayor of Newton, ripped Baker on Thursday, surfacing a June 2014 Families Against Mandatory Minimums questionnaire in which Baker, who was then a candidate for governor, responded “no” when asked if he supported the enactment of additional mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses.
Baker also said “yes” when asked if he supported the repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses under state law, and on a separate line in the questionaire offered an explanation of his position: “I believe reforming minimum sentences could be part of an overall strategy to rethink how those with substance abuse issues are treated,” Baker wrote.
Warren, whose campaign said Baker was guilty of a “flip flop on mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses,” said Baker’s plan is “more about politics than good policy.”
“Gov. Baker’s proposal to incarcerate more people in response to the opioid epidemic runs contrary to everything we’ve learned in the failed war on drugs, and to Baker’s own 2014 campaign promises. Mandatory minimum sentences do not make our communities safer and they do not reduce illegal drug use. Those are facts,” the mayor said in a statement.
Asked about Warren’s criticism, the governor’s office asserted that Massachusetts already has an incarceration rate that is the lowest among states, citing a January 2016 Department of Justice report.
Baker aides deferred to the Massachusetts Republican Party to respond to Warren.
“Shame on Setti Warren for injecting politics into the effort to combat the opioid epedemic [sic] especially given this proposal to crack down on drug dealers who kill their customers not only has bipartisan support but the support of public safety officials as well,” party spokesman Terry MacCormack said.
In his bill, Baker acknowledges he’s calling for a mandatory minimum sentence and says the change is needed to hold accountable “those who cause our citizens the most harm by illegally selling drugs that kill people.”
“In order to ensure that accountability, this legislation establishes enhanced penalties that directly target those who cause death by illegally selling drugs,” Baker wrote in a letter to lawmakers. “No new conduct would be made illegal. When illegal drug distribution causes a death, laws that were designed to punish the act are inadequate to recognize the seriousness of the resulting harm. This legislation would provide for a penalty of up to life in prison and, like the offense of manslaughter while driving drunk, would also require a mandatory minimum sentence of at least five years.”
MacCormack did not address Warren’s charge that Baker was flouting his campaign pledge on mandatory minimums.
Asked if he supported or opposed Baker’s new proposal targeting drug dealers, Warren spokesman Kevin Franck said, “Mayor Warren cannot support any proposal that includes discriminatory and ineffective mandatory minimum sentences. He agrees with the 2014 version of Charlie Baker that we don’t need any more mandatory minimum drug sentences.”
Warren alleged that Baker, who is expected to seek re-election next year, factored political calculations into his proposal.
“Proposing harsher sentences might help Gov. Baker placate his conservative base, but that will be cold comfort to the thousands of families and communities who we know are disproportionately impacted by mandatory minimums, and to those struggling with opioid addiction, who are more likely to find a jail cell than a treatment bed under Baker’s approach,” Warren said.
The back-and-forth between the camps highlights the friction over enacting criminal justice system reforms. While officials in both parties say they are pro-reform, debates over sentencing changes and supports for ex-prisoners often become colored by the emotions and fiscal challenges associated with bills.
Ahead of sessions this fall where there could be action, some lawmakers and justice reform advocates are calling for passage of legislation broader in scope than the bill Baker filed in February. That legislation would expand the use of “good time” credits for inmates to reduce their period of incarceration when they participate in programs aimed at lowering recidivism and making the transition back into the community easier for offenders.