Posts Tagged: sentencing reform

Drug Lab Crisis Points to Larger Issues in the Criminal Justice System

We are still just scratching the surface from the fallout resulting from the mishandling of evidence in alleged drug cases at the crime lab in Jamaica Plain. At the very least, the crisis we’re now facing underscores the importance of strict protocols and controls in every aspect of our criminal justice system.

The massive effort to right the wrongs caused by what happened at the state drug lab is already underway.  To his credit, Governor Patrick swiftly put together a central office to oversee the review of criminal cases potentially jeopardized by the mishandling of evidence.  The office, headed by David Meier, worked throughout the weekend to identify cases where Annie Dookhan, the state chemist in question, performed primary or secondary tests.  By Monday the estimate was that more than 1,100 individuals currently serving sentences in state or county houses of correction were affected.  This number does not include individuals in federal custody, those awaiting trial, those on probation or parole, those who were previously convicted and served time, or those otherwise punished.

In the last few days, a handful of defendants has already been released from prison or had their sentences suspended.  It’s expected that in the coming weeks there will be an onslaught of people who will be released from jail or face significantly lesser charges.

Calls are coming into the BBA’s Lawyer Referral Service on behalf of people imprisoned in drug cases.  The Committee for Public Counsel Services has created a specific office to deal with the influx of cases.  More information from CPCS can be obtained by calling their main number, (617) 482-6212.

What’s happening in Massachusetts is unprecedented because of the magnitude of the number of cases potentially impacted.  However, this isn’t the first time that state drug or crime labs have had to be shut done because of mishandling of evidence.  In 2008, the Michigan State Police shut down the Detroit Police crime laboratory because of a history of mishandling evidence.  In 2009, a San Francisco lab technician, who is currently facing federal charges, was accused of stealing cocaine from the facility and a total of 1,400 cases were reviewed.  More recently in Nassau County, New York, the state crime lab acknowledged mismatching reports on blood-alcohol tests, as well as possible contamination of drug evidence.  The local district attorney worked with the Nassau County Bar Association to help inform inmates whether their cases were impacted.  As many as 9,000 drug cases were reviewed.

It’s way too soon to assess what the impact will be on our justice system. But the scandal spotlights another important BBA public policy issue – the need to abolish mandatory minimum sentences.  Currently, Massachusetts has a one-size-fits-all system of sentencing for drug crimes. Sentences are often disproportionate to the seriousness of the crime or the risk to the public.

With few exceptions, Massachusetts’ drug-sentencing laws are based on the weight of drugs involved, rather than what a defendant actually did.

This crisis is putting our criminal justice system to the test.  While David Meier’s central office continues to work around the clock to identify those affected by what happened, it will be the justice system that determines whether or not we get it right.

-Kathleen Joyce
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association

Cleaning Up Loose Ends

As of this writing, Massachusetts has just 23 days to finalize the $32.4 billion state budget.  With differences between the House (H  4101) and Senate (S 2275) versions of the budget, now is the time for negotiations conducted by the recently named budget conference committee. Serving on that committee are the House conferees Representative Brian Dempsey, Representative Stephen Kulik and Representative Viriato deMacedo, and Senate conferees Senator Stephen Brewer, Senator Jennifer Flanagan and Senator Michael Knapik.  As you may recall, the House budget was finalized in April and the Senate’s version was finalized at the end of May.  Once the conference committee has agreed on the details of the budget, it will be reviewed by Governor Patrick before he signs it.  The goal is to get this all done by July 1st.

Just for the record, the BBA has a particular interest in line item 0321-1600 – Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC).  MLAC’s request for fiscal year 2013 was $14.5 million – check out MLAC’s fact sheet.  Both the Governor and the House proposed funding MLAC at $12 million, while the Senate only appropriated $11.5 million.  The BBA will be working with our legal services partners to secure at least the $12 million provided by the Governor and the House.

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An update on another conference committee the BBA is watching with interest… For the past six months, the crime bill conference committee has been meeting to settle differences between a habitual offender sentencing reform bill that the House approved and a much larger crime package passed by the Senate.  Both sides have expressed optimism that a compromise bill will be ready before the end of July.

Among the issues still being negotiated and discussed by the crime conference committee are the list of crimes that would trigger a “three-strikes” elimination of parole, a reduction to the size of school zones that carry increased penalties for drug crimes and a reduction in mandatory minimum sentences.

While Massachusetts has a year round Legislature, formal sessions end on July 31st.  But, the Legislature will continue to meet about twice a week through December in informal sessions. There’s a push to get this crime bill (and many other bills too) completed by the end of July because it can be challenging to advance a major piece of legislation during an informal session.  During an informal session, if even one member of the Legislature raises an objection, this brings the informal session to a halt – thereby blocking the progress of any bill being considered.

We expect a lot of activity over the next few weeks as the Legislature works to complete a number of its priorities.  In addition to the work on behalf of MLAC and working to push for mandatory minimum sentence reform for nonviolent drug offenses, the BBA will continue to try to get our other bills over the final finish line for this session.

– Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association