Sentences on Sentences: Reform and Dookhan Update

It was a week for sentencing discussions at the BBA.  First, an update on the Dookhan drug lab scandal, an issue we’ve spoken on a number of times (see past posts: Drug Lab Crisis Points to Larger Issues in the Criminal Justice System, Getting it Right: A Bargain at Any Price, Catching Up: Have  You Heard?), especially through the work of our Drug Lab Crisis Task Force.  The Task Force examined the facts regarding the lab crisis and related matters and released their report in early 2014, just months after chemist Annie Dookhan pled guilty to 27 counts of misleading investigators, filing false reports, and tampering with evidence for her deliberate mishandling of evidence in the Hinton drug lab.

Our Task Force made three recommendations:

  • Prosecutors, defense counsel, judges, and policy makers should continue the extraordinary joint efforts that were mounted in the aftermath of the Dookhan misconduct to promptly resolve open criminal cases related to Dookhan’s misconduct.
  • The Commonwealth needs to further enhance the auditing and oversight of drug labs and consider similar steps regarding all forensic services.
  • The Governor and Legislature ought to review funding levels for forensic services to ensure that these services are adequately funded and staffed and that effective auditing and oversight is maintained.

On Monday, in keeping with our report’s first recommendation above, the SJC held in Bridgeman v. District Attorney for the Suffolk District that individuals who pled guilty in cases with evidence that was affected by the Dookhan scandal cannot be charged with a more serious offense, nor can they receive a harsher sentence than they were originally given, if they are granted a new trial.  According to the Globe, the holding was celebrated by the defense bar and civil libertarians, but was a source of concern for prosecutors, as “ ‘convicted defendants now have nothing to lose by withdrawing their evidence-based admissions of guilt.’ ” We will continue to monitor developments related to this situation and ongoing litigation.

Shortly after learning of this decision, we were pleased to welcome Chief Judge Patti Saris of the U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts to our Council meeting.  Having previously worked for U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, and as a Magistrate and Massachusetts Superior Court Judge before her nomination to U.S. District Court, Judge Saris spoke with a wealth of knowledge about sentencing issues from both legislative and judicial perspectives and with state and federal experience.

In addition, she chairs the U.S. Sentencing Commission (“Commission”), an independent agency in the federal judicial branch established in 1984 and tasked with establishing sentencing guidelines and practices for federal courts, advising and assisting Congress and the executive branch in developing effective and efficient criminal policy, and collecting, analyzing, researching, and disseminating a broad array of information on crime and sentencing issues to all branches of government, academia, and the general public.  It is bipartisan by design in order to consider all viewpoints and to effectively gain buy-in from all legislators.

The Commission was a driving force behind the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which made a number of reforms to federal sentences for drug offenses, most notably reducing the disparity between sentences involving crack versus those involving powder cocaine.  When preparing this bill, the Commission examined mandatory minimum sentences and found that they were mostly affecting small-time criminals – drug couriers and street dealers — not the drug kingpins that Congress intended to target.  Other considerations, such as the expense of prisons and the exceedingly high rate of incarceration in the United States, also led to those reforms.

As a result the bill reduced sentence lengths, up to 20-25% for some offenses.  It also had a built-in one-year delay until its effective date, so probation offices could increase their staffs, because shorter sentences are most effective at reducing recidivism when prisoners are released into a system of support and monitoring.

Since the Act’s enactment, the Commission has studied outcomes, finding that the recidivism rate is no higher for people released from prison up to two years earlier than they would have been under the old sentencing regime.  In addition, they found that the rate of guilty pleas and cooperation with plea agreements remained the same, meaning shorter sentences did not have a negative effect on prosecutorial bargaining power or result in more trials.  In all, the Commission’s process and the bill’s provisions have been a clear success.

Chief Judge Saris also told the Council about three major sentencing reform bills gaining traction with Congress.

  • The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015 would further reduce mandatory minimums and its reductions would also have retroactive effect. In addition, it would provide a safety valve for low-level, non-violent offenders who admit to their role in crimes, lifting the mandatory minimum sentence in favor of judicial discretion.
  • The Corrections Oversight Recidivism Reduction and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers in Our National System (CORRECTIONS) Act creates a system similar to a parole board, permitting the bureau of prisons to return to the sentencing judge and ask for a reduction in sentence length. The idea is to give a second chance to people who have reformed in prison and, as a result, save money by shortening their sentences.  The bill has already passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, yet there are some concerns about the risk assessment tool it uses to determine which prisoners are best suited for sentence reductions.  The tool relies heavily on socioeconomic factors such as whether the prisoner is educated or has a home or supportive family.  It also puts a lot of pressure on judges, who have the final say (and potentially blame) as to who qualifies for a sentence reduction.
  • The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2015 retains mandatory minimum sentences, but gives judges the freedom to stray from the mandatory terms if they find strong mitigating factors.

These bills provide legislators with different options for sentencing reform.  Not everyone is opposed to mandatory minimum sentences.  Many support the uniformity they provide.  However, there appears to be consensus that reform is necessary because current mandatory minimum sentences are too long and applied too broadly.

Underlying this debate are concerns about recidivism and new evidence that longer prison sentences may actually be detrimental to a person’s ability to re-enter society and avoid future criminal activity.  Some states are working on diversion programs, giving people who have committed serious crimes, but who don’t have major records, the ability to take part in lengthy probation terms.  If they successfully complete all of the tasks required of them, these individuals can have their records wiped clean.

In addition, collateral consequences play a role in recidivism discussions.  These include limits on securing housing and jobs, as well as other obstacles that prisoners face upon their release.  There is an increasing understanding that these collateral consequences may be so harsh that they prevent people from successfully re-entering society.  Addressing these problems may become a focus of future bills.

In all, we learned a lot about sentencing this week, from an update on the Dookhan case to a Council presentation by Chief Judge Saris on federal legislation.  We at the BBA continue to oppose mandatory minimum sentences and advocate for sensible, cost-effective reforms.  We are committed to monitoring reforms in this area and keeping our members informed of any progress.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association