Posts Categorized: mandatory minimums

BBA Meets with the Chief Justices

We do it every fall.  Because of the primary importance to the BBA of the judicial system in Massachusetts, the incoming BBA President meets each year with the chief judges at every level—the heads of the SJC and the Appeals Court, the US District Court, Bankruptcy Court, and Circuit of Appeals, the Chief Justice and Administrator of the Trial Court (together), and the leaders of each of the Trial Court’s seven departments: Superior Court, District Court, Boston Municipal Court, Housing Court, Juvenile Court, Land Court, and Probate & Family Court.

As you can imagine, these thirteen meetings take up a great deal of the President’s time.  But the effort is always worthwhile, for the opportunity it provides to discuss our mutual plans priorities for the coming year and where they overlap, to reaffirm our commitment to adequate funding and other support necessary to enable the Massachusetts courts to maintain their preeminent position in the nation, and to promote a free-flowing back-and-forth throughout the year.

BBA President Carol Starkey recently wrapped up her chief-judge meetings, and, as usual, some common themes emerged:

Budget funding

Funding for the Trial Court is always one of the BBA’s top priorities and a focus of our advocacy at the State House.  The Court has recovered well from the budget setbacks that were necessitated by the Great Recession, becoming leaner and more efficient.  But recent years have found budget-writers in the Governor’s Office and the Legislature tightening their belts once again, and the courts have not been entirely spared.

For the current fiscal year (FY17), the Trial Court’s final budget of $639 million represents $15.4 million less than what they would have required to maintain level services.  As a result, they are making do by putting off some hiring, launching an early-retirement program, and accelerating efforts to do more with less, such as by shifting staff among courthouses, sessions, and responsibilities.

This budget crunch is taking its toll throughout the system, and we heard from several chief judges about its impact in their courts.  Chief Justice Paul Dawley, who oversees 62 courthouses in the District Court system—many of them aging badly—knows as well as anyone how urgent the need is for adequate court funding.

Online access to court records

This past year, the Trial Court issued a new rule on public access to court records on-line.  The process was challenging, as these debates are always fraught with tension over the competing interests of transparency and privacy.  The rules seek to strike the proper balance by creating limited exceptions to the general rule providing for accessibility.  Criminal cases, for instance, come with their own set of concerns, and the Court took steps to ensure that access to information on those cases did not undermine either the letter or the spirit of recent changes to laws on criminal offender record information (CORI)—changes designed to promote successful re-entry of ex-offenders.

Beyond that, the Court recognized that on-line access rules are a work in progress and that a one-size-fits-all approach will not succeed: The new rules provide for both a working group to oversee and study their implementation and for standing orders within each department that address their unique concerns.  (In fact, just this week, the Probate & Family Court followed up with a standing order rendering both docket entries and parties’ addresses in a broad range of cases unavailable through the on-line portal.)  Both the opportunity and the challenge presented to the judiciary, and court users, as records move on-line are clearly on the minds of many of the chiefs we met with.

Vacancies on the bench

We’ve written here before about how critical it is that qualified candidates apply for judgeships—and that lawyers who work with such people encourage them to do so.  Right now, several court departments are facing significant shortfalls on their benches, and getting more applicants is one piece of the puzzle in filling those seats.

With 7 vacancies (out of 49) expected by the end of this year, Chief Justice Angela Ordoñez of the Probate & Family often has to place herself on special committees, rather than ask one of her overburdened judges to take on such work as well.  At the Superior Court, Chief Justice Judith Fabricant has 13 openings and sees 7 more coming by the end of 2017.

In all, the Trial Court has more than 50 judicial vacancies at the moment.  And while nearly half of that gap is being filled, for now, by recall judges, the need is still great.  The Governor’s office, the Judicial Nominating Commission, and the Governor’s Council are all hard at work, playing their respective roles in nominating, vetting, and confirming qualified candidates, but we will need to keep an eye on the situation.

One aspect of the process that all players are focused on is diversity among judges—racial and ethnic diversity, as well as geographic diversity, gender balance, and a mix of backgrounds in terms of practice area and setting.  Several chiefs told us they, too, are keeping a close eye on the diversity of their judges.  Chief Ordoñez is taking on the problem by addressing the early end of the pipeline—pairing small groups of lawyers as mentors with minority students at not only local law schools but also colleges and even high schools, to help them see the law as a potential career path.

Judicial evaluations

Each year we hear the same appeal from multiple chief judges: Please urge practitioners in their courts to fill out and submit judicial-evaluation forms!  The information they produce can be invaluable in helping judges improve and making the chiefs aware of topics for continued trainings.

We know that some lawyers have concerns about the forms—that they aren’t used by the courts, that responses that could be read as criticism will make their way back to the judge in question with enough particulars to reveal the respondent’s identity.  But the chiefs take pains to stress to us, time and again, that they do indeed rely on the forms, and that they make every effort to maintain confidentiality by scrubbing details before sharing them.

We have pledged to the chief judges that we will continue to help them with the evaluation process.  At the same time, we are always interested in any questions or hesitations you may have about it, so please let us know!  The chiefs are eager as well to hear informally, through the BBA, of any problems that have come to our attention, whether with individuals or more generally.

LAR

Another topic that came up time and again was limited-assistance representation (LAR), through which an attorney can take on a client for discrete parts of a case, without being tied to the client for the entirety of the case.  The BBA is a strong supporter of LAR as a way to bridge the justice gap that leaves too many litigants without the means to pay for counsel yet unable to qualify for assistance from legal-services providers.  It can also help new lawyers establish and grow a practice.

We are always seeking ways to help educate attorneys on LAR; we’ve conducted many trainings on it, and we are planning more.  (We also recently submitted comments on new rules bringing LAR to Superior Court for the first time.)  Our meetings with chief judges are a chance to assess how well LAR is working in their courts, to learn which types of cases are best suited for LAR in each court, and to ask how the BBA can further promote the program.  We have also relayed fears shared by some would-be LAR practitioners that they will be unable to extricate themselves from a case after they’ve finished the limited work they signed on to handle.

According to Chief Justice Roberto Ronquillo, the Boston Municipal Court sees many cases (e.g., collections matters) that can be settled in one day with the assistance of counsel—yet often at least party is unrepresented.  He also offered insight into LAR from a trial judge’s perspective, giving us useful advice on how to increase their awareness of LAR as an option to suggest to parties.

At the Land Court, where Chief Justice Judith Cutler presides, judges frequently recommend LAR.  Yet they’ve encountered some problems in how it’s worked in practice—problems they were keen to get our help with.  Specifically, they’d like to see LAR attorneys help with a case earlier in the process.  A simple consultation with an LAR attorney at the outset can help prevent further problems down the line.  Too often, pro-se litigants fail to even respond to motions, only to seek counsel late in the game.  There is simply too much at stake in cases before the Land Court for that be a beneficial approach, and Chief Cutler is eager to see such problems averted.

Beyond these broad themes, the judges raised issues that are affecting their courts individually.  For example, Chief Justice Amy Nechtem of the Juvenile Court spoke with pride about the work they’re doing to address racial disparities.  Chief Justice Timothy Sullivan thanked us for our advocacy on behalf of expansion of his Housing Court to statewide jurisdiction—a battle that will continue in the new year.

From Chief Justice Scott Kafker, we learned of his initiatives to help Appeals Court justices work through their caseloads more efficiently and to get cases ready more quickly.

When we sat down with SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants, it was clear that the state’s on-going effort to study our criminal-justice system, in conjunction with the Council of State Governments (CSG), was occupying much of his thinking.  Chief Gants, along with Governor Charlie Baker and the Legislature’s two leaders, was a signatory to the letter inviting CSG to assist in this broad review of policies and practices, and, like the others, he is a member of the steering committee that is guiding their work.

CSG anticipates filing a report with recommendations by the end of this year, in time for legislation to be filed at the start of the 2017-18 legislative session, and Chief Gants foresees a role—as do we—for the BBA to play in analyzing and commenting on the report and resulting bills.

Our meetings with the chief judges in the federal system tend to highlight different issues.  The Bankruptcy judges (whom we met with as a group, led by Chief Judge Melvin Hoffman) were proud of their new local bankruptcy rules and asked us to spread the word.  Chief Judge Patti Saris told us the US District Court is looking into developing its own local rules of civil procedure.  At both of these meetings, we heard laments about the difficulties new lawyers face in first passing the bar and then establishing themselves in their careers.  And Chief Judge Jeffrey Howard of the First Circuit Court of Appeals shared with us that while his court has made advances in technology, it’s difficult to keep up.  As a result, some attorneys bring their own equipment, which can put pro-se litigants at a disadvantage.

Finally, we had a bittersweet meeting with Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey and Court Administrator Harry Spence, because the latter will be retiring this April.  He will clearly be racing through the finishing line, however, and he and Chief Carey updated us on a variety of projects they have before them, including training for staff on implicit bias, a restructuring of personnel to upgrade security, and the Court’s 20-year plan for capital spending to set priorities for new construction.

These annual meetings provide a window into the thinking of the leadership at the judiciary, and we will continue to share with you what we learn.

— Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association

Welcome Back SJC

 

The start of our program year coincides with the start of the new session of the Supreme Judicial Court, which runs until May 2017.  The Justices held their first oral argument on September 6, when Chief Justice Ralph Gants welcomed three recently confirmed justices to the bench for the first time – Frank Gaziano, David Lowy, and Kimberly Budd who replace retired Justices Frank Spina, Robert Cordy, and Fernande Duffly.  They join returning justices Barbara Lenk, Margot Botsford, and Geraldine Hines, the latter two of whom face mandatory retirement in 2017.

Here are some cases we’ll be keeping a close eye on this session:

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

The first case of interest, Commonwealth v. Laltaprasad (SJC-11970), was actually argued last session, but the Court waived its 130-day rule, which requires it to issue a written opinion within 130 days after argument (or submission without argument), and still has not issued its holding.  The case revolves around Superior Court Judge Shannon Frison’s departure from the mandatory minimum sentence for drug crimes of which the defendant was convicted.  On July 23, 2015, the defendant was convicted of possession with intent to distribute heroin, subsequent offense, under G.L. 94C §32(b), and possession with intent to distribute cocaine, subsequent offense, under G.L. 94C, §32A(d).  At sentencing, the Commonwealth recommended 3.5 to 5 years in state prison.  The court departed from the mandatory minimum of 3.5 years in state prison required by G.L. 94C, §32A(d), and G.L. 94C §32(b), and instead imposed a sentence of 2.5 years in the house of correction, explaining in its memorandum of sentence departure:

(1) The defendant does not have a prior conviction for drug trafficking at seriousness levels 7 or 8; and

(2) The facts and circumstances surrounding this matter warrant a lesser sentence.  Specifically, the defendant was arrested with less than 1 gram of the controlled substances.  Further, the defendant was severely injured when the other individual shot a firearm at him.  He suffered 11 gunshot wounds and endured 21 surgeries prior to trial.  Given both the relatively small amount of contraband involved in this arrest and the extreme medical condition of the defendant, the Court will depart downward and impose a sentence of 2.5 years in the House of Correction.

The Commonwealth appealed this decision, arguing that the judge had no discretion to depart from the mandatory minimum sentence because the Legislature has exclusive power to prescribe sentencing penalties, and that separation of powers principles preclude a judge from disregarding the Legislature’s directive.  The Commonwealth also argued that sentencing guidelines recommended pursuant to G.L. c. 211E, which permit a judge to depart from a mandatory minimum sentence, have never been enacted by the Legislature, and thus could not be applied in this case.

In late December, the SJC solicited amicus briefs on “Whether a sentencing judge has discretion to depart from the mandatory minimum terms specified in G. L. c. 94C, § 32 (b), and § 32A (d), under the sentencing guidelines recommended pursuant to G. L. c. 211E or otherwise.”  A large number of organizations submitted amicus briefs making various arguments opposing mandatory minimum sentences, including separation of powers in government, the need for judicial discretion, individualized  and proportional sentencing, and the disparate impact of mandatory minimum drug laws on minority populations.  They also explained that mandatory minimums did not adequately serve the primary purposes of sentencing and argued for safety valves, similar to those in the Federal system and a number of other states, that permit judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentencing schemes under certain circumstances.

Until the decision is issued, it remains unclear why the SJC chose to take this case.  On one hand, it seems clear that the lower-court judge did not follow the law in her sentencing memorandum.  Or did the SJC see here an opportunity to make changes to the current state of mandatory minimum sentencing in the Commonwealth?  From a policy perspective, the BBA has long opposed mandatory minimum sentencing, so we are particularly interested to see if the Court uses this case as a vehicle to move the ball on this issue.

Drug Lab Scandal Solutions

Bridgeman v. District Attorney (SJC-12157) is the latest in the string of cases related to the Annie Dookhan/Hinton Drug Lab scandal, in which convicted chemist Annie Dookhan tainted tens of thousands of drug samples submitted for analysis in criminal cases.  This story broke publicly around 2012, and since then, the Court, CPCS, and the seven District Attorneys (DAs) with affected cases have all struggled with how to handle the voluminous issues that arose.  First, there was the issue of case identification.  Attorney David Meier was assigned the task of gathering information from the drug lab records.  He found that roughly 40,000 samples were affected by Dookhan’s actions.  Over time, that list has been translated into a list of more than 20,000 individuals whose cases remain in limbo.  While the SJC has chipped away at this case slightly, such as through the hard work of a number of retired judges, including BBA Council member, Judge Margaret Hinkle, conducting special drug lab hearings, the remaining numbers are still considerable.

In 2014, the SJC held in Commonwealth v. Scott (SJC-11465) that every person convicted with Annie Dookhan serving as either the primary or secondary chemist was entitled to a presumption of government misconduct tainting their case, meaning that they wouldn’t have to prove that Dookhan acted illicitly in their specific cases.  In their brief for this case, CPCS recommended a “global remedy” to presumptively vacate all convictions of the impacted defendants, with exceptions in a small number of certain cases.

The current case, Bridgeman has been addressed in pieces.  In May 2015, the SJC issued its decision on one issue – whether Dookhan defendants who wanted to withdraw guilty pleas could face additional sanctions.  The Court created an “exposure gap” to prevent chilling of defendants bringing their cases, such that defendants seeking post-conviction relief could not be convicted of more serious offenses or face harsher sentences than previously imposed.  The remaining issue to be addressed in the still pending Bridgeman case (SJC-12157) is whether there has been unconstitutional delay in dealing with the class of cases impacted by the Dookhan scandal, given that this case was filed in 2015, nearly 15 years after the misconduct began, and four years from the public revelation.

We are very interested to see how the Court deals with this case.  Will they adopt a “global solution”?  Or will they opt to handle the more than 20,000 cases on a case-by-case basis?  If the latter, how will the justice system (courts, appointed counsel, DAs, …) handle a potentially unwieldy number of these appeals by Dookhan defendants?  How will impacted defendants be given notice of this outcome and of their rights?  This case seems to carry even greater potential significance given the revelations of evidence issues in the Sonia Farak drug lab scandal and, most recently, the Braintree Police Department.

Bail Considerations

The third case on our radar is Commonwealth v. Wagle (SJ-2016-0334), on whether it is a violation of the state and federal constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process of law to hold  an impoverished defendant in jail before trial because she cannot afford money bail (see the Petition for Relief here).  The case is the latest in a series of cases (see, e.g. Commonwealth v. Henry) and discussions on costs and fees in the criminal justice system generally.

In this case, a Single Justice (Hines) issued an interim order, decreasing the bail amount and granting leave to her attorneys to file a revised petition in 30 days (by September 24, 2016), making arguments for “systemic relief” for the class of similarly situated individuals.  Justice Hines requested that the amended petition focus “specifically on the terms of the Massachusetts bail statute and how it is being applied by Massachusetts judges, and why the defendant claims that our statute and its application are unconstitutional.”  After reading this petition and a response from the Commonwealth, and permitting both sides to be heard on the question of reservation and reporting, the Single Justice will consider whether this case should go before the full panel of the SJC.

We’ll be keeping a close eye on this case and the discussion of fees in the criminal justice system generally.  It is important to remember that the courts are only one player here, as we are also looking forward to seeing the criminal justice reform proposals in the Legislature emerging as a result of the forthcoming Council of State Governments report.

Those are just three of a number of cases we are watching, and we can’t wait to see what other issues the SJC takes on this session, as well as what impact, if any, the changing personnel on the Court will have.  We look forward to following up with you on these cases of interest and telling you about more throughout this SJC session.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Taking on Tough Issues: Chief Justice Gants on the Judiciary

gants croppedWe recently had the pleasure of welcoming the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), Ralph D. Gants, to our building.  He addressed members of our Council, speaking on a myriad of issues currently facing the court system and the state at large.  We’ve got the recap below, but we also invite you attend the upcoming Haskell Cohn Award ceremony, at which we will be honoring the Chief for his distinguished judicial service.

Known for going out into the community to teach people about the Massachusetts courts and the practical role that they play in our lives, Chief Justice Gants has long demonstrated that he cares deeply about ensuring that the justice system works for everyone. He has actively worked to leverage limited resources wisely and to inspire the commitment of new resources to promote that goal.

Since his appointment to the bench as a Superior Court Judge in 1997, Chief Justice Gants has earned a reputation for scrupulous analytic rigor, intellectual honesty and fairness. Prior to his elevation to the SJC in 2009, he was a strong leader of the Business Litigation Session. Throughout his judicial career, and especially since his appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court in 2014, he has consistently shown a laser like ability to focus on the core issues in even the most complex of cases. He neither shies away from nor glosses over the most difficult issues, but rather grapples with them openly.  This includes access to justice and pro bono legal service – Chief Justice Gants is a former Chair of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and member of the SJC’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services.  In 2012, the BBA recognized him with the Citation of Judicial Excellence.

Here are some of the issues he addressed in his speech:

State Budget

Chief Justice Gants began with some news on the budget.  He analogized the budget process to a baseball game, stating that we were in the later innings and had scored some runs, but still had some more innings to go and work to do to convince legislators of the judiciary’s funding needs.  He acknowledged how challenging the budget situation is; even though the state economy appears healthy by many indicators, most revenue gains are already spoken-for due to constant growth in certain key areas such as health care.

As it currently stands, the Governor, House, and Senate have all released their budget proposals.  A conference committee will shortly be addressing differences between the House and Senate proposals.  Here is a brief breakdown of the line items we are most interested in:

  • Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC – funding for civil legal aid)
    • House: $18,500,000
    • Senate: $18,000,000
  • Trial Court
    • House: $639,900,000 (includes Specialty Courts module)
    • Senate: $643,484,303 (does not include Specialty Courts module)
  • Statewide Housing Court Expansion
    • House: $0
    • Senate: $1,194,614

Click here for a full analysis of all our budget priorities.

Justice System Reforms

Civil

Chief Justice Gants then discussed reforms currently under consideration for both civil and criminal practice.  Following his lead on the need for  a “menu of options” in civil litigation, each department of the Trial Court (aside from the Juvenile Court), examined their civil practices, and most are in the process of finalizing streamlining proposals that will give lawyers more practice options.  However, the Chief Justice stressed, giving lawyers more choices matters only if lawyers actually take advantage of them.  He encouraged lawyers to try out the new options when they are implemented and hoped that practitioners would be pleased with the outcomes – fair and fast resolutions of their cases on the micro level, and a more efficient court system on the whole as a result.

Once this is accomplished, it may lead to larger systemic changes.  For example, the Trial Court is examining increasing the minimum procedural amount to qualify for Superior Court from $25,000 to $50,000.  This change would approximately represent an adjustment for inflation (the amount has stayed the same since 1986), but would also result in shifting a large number of cases from the Superior Court to the District Court level.  Implementation of this change is currently on hold, at least until devoted civil sessions in the District Courts are operating at peak efficiency.

Criminal

On the criminal front, the Chief Justice spoke highly of the work of the Council of State Governments, which is examining criminal justice policy in Massachusetts at the joint request—and with the guidance—of  the Chief Justice, the Governor, the Senate President, and the Speaker of the House.   The Council will be making recommendations for criminal justice reforms in the Commonwealth in the coming months.

Chief Justice Gants has already taken the lead on this issue in the judiciary, installing best practices for sentencing in all criminal courts.  He explained that going forward, the judiciary is looking more closely at issues such as sentence length and post-release conditions (currently about 40% of people are released from prison without any form of supervision), as well as tailoring sentences individually for each defendant.  The court is also focused on monetary issues, such as determining individuals’ ability to pay court fees and increasing the baseline amount for certain crimes, such as larceny, to qualify as a felony.

Access to Justice

Finally, Chief Justice Gants addressed his work with the Conference of Chief Justices, which recently adopted a resolution as part of a national effort to achieve “100% access to justice.”  While that phrase can mean many things, Chief Justice Gants is focused on maximizing both legal and non-legal resources so litigants can get the help they need, from self-help forms, to brief advice, to full representation from a lawyer, depending on the individual’s abilities and the complexity of their issue(s).  The biggest current challenge is figuring out how to allocate resources to achieve the most effective “triage.”  Other states are working to address the same questions, and he hopes we can benefit from some of their research and innovations.  Meanwhile, Massachusetts remains a leader in access to justice – as recognized by the National Center for Access to Justice’s recently-released 2016 Justice Index, which ranks us second only to the District of Columbia – and continues to expand empowering programs and initiatives, such as opening more Court Service Centers in courts across the state.

As always, the Chief Justice demonstrated his deep knowledge of the courts and justice system at large as well as his energetic push for meaningful and beneficial reforms to assure efficient practice and access to justice for all.  We are extremely pleased to be honoring him at next week’s Haskell Cohn ceremony and hope that you will join us in recognizing his remarkable and ever-increasing achievements.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

BBA Advocacy in DC – ABA Day 2016

Last week, we made our annual trip to Washington, D.C., for the 20th ABA Day—the annual event that brings bar-association leaders to the capital for three days of meetings with members of Congress and their staffs, trainings and briefings, awards and speeches, and mingling with lawyers from across the nation.

IMAG0427

Mark Smith and Carol Starkey on the US Capitol Underground Tram 

This year, the BBA was represented by President-Elect Carol Starkey, of Conn Kavanaugh, and Vice-President Mark Smith, of Laredo & Smith.  They were joined in Washington by the MBA President Bob Harnais and Vice-President Jeff Catalano.  In one whirlwind 24-hour period (all right, make that 26 hours, to be precise), the group visited the offices of 10 out of our 11 Senators and Representatives, to advocate on issues of great importance to both the ABA and the Massachusetts bar.

One constant theme of ABA Day, year after year, is the importance of federal funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which in turn doles out support to legal-aid organizations at the state level.  In the current FY16 budget, the ABA was able to secure a $10 million increase in LSC’s appropriation—no easy lift at a time of fiscal restraint and polarization in Congress.  For FY17, with current funding still 15.7% lower than it was in 2010 (inflation adjusted), we argued for a substantial increase, from $385 million to $475 million.

In making this case to our delegation, we were helped once again by the October 2014 report of the BBA’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, which found that—in addition to being the right thing to do, to offer legal assistance to low-income residents in need and to reduce delays in our courts—increased funding for legal aid produces a return on investment, by saving the government on “back-end” costs such as health care for domestic-violence victims, emergency shelter after evictions or foreclosures, and foster care for children.  (We continue to use this report as the basis of our campaign for state funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.  Stay tuned until next week for an update on this and all our other budget priorities.)

IMAG0435

Left to Right: Rep. Joe Kennedy, Bob Harnais, Mark Smith, and Carol Starkey

One of the leaders on this subject in Congress is our own Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III (Brookline), who co-founded the bipartisan Access to Civil Legal Services Caucus this past fall, alongside a GOP colleague from Indiana, Rep. Susan Brooks.  At one of the ABA Day breakfasts, we heard Rep. Kennedy give an impassioned speech about the critical importance of legal aid.  Later that day, he ducked out of a committee mark-up session to meet with us.

The second issue we discussed with our elected officials was criminal-justice reform.  The ABA has endorsed legislation pending in Congress to address sentencing of both adults and juveniles.  This is an area that has seen tremendous movement in recent years, with dozens of states taking action to restructure their criminal-justice systems so as to relieve over-incarceration, reduce expenditures, and promote successful re-entry—all while protecting public safety.  (Here in Massachusetts, a similar effort is underway, with leadership from all three branches of government working with the Council of State Governments on a year-long comprehensive review that is expected to lead to legislation early next year.)

We were told by a number of legislators that there is a growing bipartisan consensus in support of such bills, with the main lingering questions being how to address the fine print, and whether enactment might happen in the near-term, during a Presidential campaign, or will have to wait until a lame-duck session after the election.

The last item on our agenda, in meetings with our delegation, is mandatory accrual accounting for law firms and other types of personal service businesses, which would have a deleterious effect, especially on smaller firms, by requiring them to book revenue, and pay taxes on it, even before it has actually been received.  This was proposed a few years ago, but thanks to a concerted campaign by the ABA—in which the BBA took part—it was shot down.  However, no idea is ever truly dead in Congress, and we must remain vigilant in case such language re-emerges.  For that reason, it’s important to convey to our representatives that the issue is still on our radar screens.

Fortunately, all Massachusetts Senators and Representatives who were in office during the last session signed onto a letter opposing mandatory accrual accounting, so we know we have their support on this should we need it.

In fact, we enjoy support virtually across-the-board from our delegation on all these priorities.  So for the BBA and the MBA, unlike representatives from many other states, these visits are not about changing minds but rather about conveying our appreciation for their positions.  We have it relatively easy compared to, say, ABA President-Elect Linda Klein, who spoke at one event about the challenge of trying to persuade some members of Congress from her home state of Georgia.

IMAG0440

Left to Right: Lee Constantine, Jeff Catalano, Carol Starkey, Mark Smith, Sen. Markey, Bob Harnais, Mike Avitzur

Regardless of the circumstances, it is always a pleasure to have a chance to sit down with national leaders like Sen. Edward Markey, who spoke about two legal internships he held while at Boston College Law School.  Those experiences demonstrated to him first-hand the importance of providing legal representation to low-income residents, and they undergird his long-standing support for legal-aid funding.  He also expressed dismay that the crushing burden of law-school debt is driving too many new attorneys away from public service—the path he chose—after graduation.

IMAG0424

Left to Right: Bob Harnais, Jeff Catalano, Sen. Warren, Carol Starkey, Mark Smith

As an expert in bankruptcy, Sen. Elizabeth Warren understands how legal-services attorneys created the common law around the then-new bankruptcy law 25 years ago, back when there was much more funding; now, the federal government doesn’t provide money for legal services to take on bankruptcy cases.  Sen. Warren called the LSC appropriation “crumbs” in the context of the federal budget, and assured us that she’ll continue to fight for a justice system that “feels fair”—not one that works only for the wealthy.  Her commitment to legal services is demonstrated by her recent hiring of Stephanie Akpa as Counsel.  Stephanie previously worked for the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia and is advising the Senator on Judiciary Committee matters, such as the sentencing reform we had come to advocate for.  Sen. Warren noted that while most Senators use their limited office payroll for staffers to the committees on which they sit, she chose instead to assign Judiciary to Stephanie because of the priority the Senator places on those issues, even though she is not a member of that committee.

IMAG0430

Left to Right: Jeff Catalano, Carol Starkey, Bob Harnais, Rep. McGovern, Mark Smith

From Rep. James McGovern (Worcester), we heard stories from the night he recently spent in a homeless shelter in his district.  This issue is personal for him—he held a hearing on poverty earlier this month as well—so he understands the importance of lawyers in helping to keep people in their homes.  He also applauded our efforts on criminal justice, noting the need to focus on early intervention to help juvenile offenders turn their lives around, and re-entry efforts to give ex-offenders a real chance to “have a life.”

IMAG0432

Left to Right: Jeff Catalano, Carol Starkey, Rep. Capuano, Bob Harnais, Mark Smith

Rep. Michael Capuano (Somerville) called sentencing reform “the most hopeful thing we might work on this year,” saying this is the first time in his life that the potential exists for positive action.  He told us he’s always opposed mandatory minimums (as does the BBA): “I know the difference between a criminal and someone who made a mistake,” he said, but mandatory sentences ignore that distinction.  They also lead in some cases to criminalization of a health problem; the Congressman doesn’t want anyone to have to rob his mother’s house in order to feed their addiction.

During the foreclosure crisis, Rep. Katherine Clark (Melrose) saw how difficult it was for her constituents to get access to legal assistance, and how this led to many of them losing their homes.  So she knows all about the justice gap from her service in both the House and Senate in Massachusetts, where she worked tirelessly to try to close it.  Now, she’s brought that commitment with her to D.C.  Indeed, she won the Equal Justice Coalition’s Champion of Justice award in 2014 for her work on behalf of legal-aid funding at both the state and the federal level.  We have her support on this, as well as on sentencing reform.

As the 114th Congress continues its work, we’ll keep an eye on all these issues, and we’ll be back in D.C. again in 2017 for the 21st annual ABA Day.

— Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association

Focus on Reducing Recidivism

We’ve spoken at length in this space about the BBA’s opposition to mandatory-minimum sentencing, which limits judicial discretion, applies one-size-fits-all solutions regardless of the facts and circumstances of each case, and contributed heavily to the explosive growth in prison and jail populations across the nation (with Massachusetts no exception) in the last decades of the 20th century.

Support has grown for reform of mandatory sentencing practices as the toll they have taken on individuals and their families, and the costs they impose on state budgets, have become clearer.  But the public debate on criminal-justice policies has broadened, to include a variety of other issues, such as: reform of the bail process, to make it more reflective of the true risk posed by a defendant and less disproportionately punitive toward the poor; use of evidence-based risk assessment tools to help determine the security classifications of inmates behind bars, and their appropriate level of supervision upon release; and ways to reduce recidivism and promote successful re-entry of the 90-plus% of those currently incarcerated who will ultimately return to society after incarceration.

There has been much movement in recent weeks on this last point.  In January, two different groups dedicated to in-depth analysis of criminal-justice data in Massachusetts publicly presented their findings.  And this past Saturday, at our annual John and Abigail Adams Benefit, the Boston Bar Foundation bestowed its 2016 Public Service Award upon Roca, a community-based non-profit organization committed to helping 17-to-24-year-olds succeed in re-integrating to society.  Read more about Roca here.

Founded in 1988 by CEO Molly Baldwin, who accepted the award for Roca during the event at the Museum of Fine Arts, Roca focuses on those youths, overwhelmingly men, who are at greatest risk of recidivism – gang members, school drop-outs, young parents.  Their outcomes-driven approach combines relentless outreach with data-driven evaluation, starting with the question, “Are we helping young people change behaviors to improve their lives — and how do we know?”  Roca recognizes that criminal involvement and poverty are intertwined, and they seek to disrupt that cycle, with the motto, “Less jail, more future.”

In 2014, Roca partnered with the state and outside investors to undertake the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Pay for Success Project, one of the nation’s first projects involving “social impact bonds,” which deliver private funds to non-governmental organizations on the promise that their work, and their expertise, can help save money in the end.  Essentially, if Roca is able to reduce recidivism and improve job skills for its target group of ex-offenders, the state will reward investors out of its criminal-justice savings.  If they are unable to do so, the investors will take the loss.  The project is set to run through 2020, but either way, Roca and the state government will gain valuable data on what works and what doesn’t, and Roca is using the funds to help grow its operation, which began in Chelsea, but has since expanded to other communities within Greater Boston, and to Springfield.

While Roca has been working with young people at the ground level, researchers at the public-policy think tank MassInc have been studying what the statewide data show about our re-entry practices in Massachusetts, with an eye toward how a better strategy can improve outcomes.  Last week, they held an event to announce the release of their latest report on criminal justice, Reducing Recidivism in Massachusetts with a Comprehensive Reentry Strategy, and to discuss its findings.

One of the report’s key takeaways is that our re-entry supervision resources are being distributed inefficiently: For example, ten percent of inmates are released to “dual supervision,” meaning they are redundantly required to report to both the Department of Probation (based on a sentence that included probation time after incarceration) and the Parole Board (for those who were released under their auspices).  These agencies operate independently, within two different branches of government (Parole under the executive and Probation under the judiciary).

Furthermore, the MassInc researchers classified released individuals by their assessed risk – low, medium, and high – and found, perversely, that the high-risk inmates were actually the most likely to be returned to the street with no supervision at all.  One factor is that in about half of the instances where a mandatory minimum applies, the judge imposes an “and a day” sentence, in which the maximum sentence is one day longer than the minimum.  As a result, the defendant effectively has no option of parole.

Bruce Western, Professor of Sociology at the Kennedy School of Government, then offered findings from his own research on the critical factors that deter recidivism.  Prof. Western categorizes them by age upon release, and looks at whether ex-offenders have mental-health or substance-abuse problems, whether they have employment, stable housing, or family support, and whether they participate in social programs.  One of his main conclusions is that families – and, in particular, older female relatives – should be supported as part of a typical re-entry plan, because they can have a very positive effect on outcomes.  Another focus should be older men – who are less likely to have such relatives in their lives and thus more likely to be socially isolated – especially those experiencing poverty, mental illness, or addiction.

The forum ended with a panel discussion that included Berkshire County DA David Cape less, MassINC Research Director Ben Forman, the BBA’s Civil Rights & Civil Liberties co-chair Rahsaan Hall of the ACLU of Massachusetts, representatives from Connecticut and Texas – two states that have recently reformed their criminal-justice policies – and Conan Harris, the Deputy Director of the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety Initiatives for the City of Boston, and himself an ex-offender.

While there appears to be growing momentum toward an overall re-evaluation of our own policies in Massachusetts, any major reform is likely to have to wait until 2017.  That’s because the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments plans to spend this year collecting and analyzing data and developing policy options, at the joint request of Governor Charlie Baker, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants.

Last month, their Massachusetts team gave dual presentations on their initial findings, to the full working group tasked with guiding their effort, and to the state’s standing commission on criminal justice, which includes Marty Murphy of Foley Hoag as the BBA’s representative.

Thus far, 23 other states have benefited from the Justice Center’s data-driven review process.  But each state presents a different picture, and the Center is careful to tailor their proposed recommendations to each state’s data and practices.   Their justice-reinvestment process seeks to identify areas where evidence-based solutions can yield cost savings, which can then be shifted toward programs that have proven their effectiveness at reducing recidivism while protecting public safety.

Though the Center’s Massachusetts work is still in its early work, their analysis has already produced some interesting findings.  For example, while the total incarcerated population is down 12% since 2006, all of that decrease has come from county houses of correction and jails; the number of sentenced inmates in state prisons has actually grown by 3% over that time.  And even at the county level, there is wide variation in population changes.  Meanwhile, they did detect a decrease at the state level over the past three years, but it’s too soon to tell whether this represents a true downward trend.

When the Center looked into recidivism, they noted that data are held by a great number of different agencies, and that, for the most part, those data are not made public.  The long-term trend shows recidivism rates holding steady, at about 40%, but the numbers from the past two years are lower; again, they could not say with any confidence that this will continue.

When it comes to supervision, the third area they’re looking at, the numbers show that while the number of parolees is down sharply in recent years, the population under probation supervision is on the rise.

The Center plans to continue its work on these and other findings and will report back to the working group throughout the year, with the goal of producing legislation that can be filed by the beginning of the 2017-18 legislative session.  We will, of course, continue to monitor all developments in this area, and report back to you here.

— Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association

Senator Brownsberger Talks Criminal Justice Reform at Council Meeting

Today we begin the final countdown to Walk to the Hill 2016 for civil legal aid, which is happening exactly one week from the date of posting, on January 28, from 11:30-12:30 (on-site registration begins at 11:00 am) at the Great Hall in the State House.  So we were very excited to welcome to this week’s BBA Council meeting a key legislator and long-time supporter of legal-aid funding, Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, William Brownsberger.  Senator Brownsberger began with some background on his legal career.  He spoke of his tenure in the Attorney General’s office where he worked on the Public Protection Bureau and as Asset Forfeiture Chief in the Narcotics and Special Investigations Division.  It was there that he first became interested in the issues of addiction, and began consulting and teaching on criminal justice and addiction issues, which he soon turned to full-time.
IMG_7943It wasn’t long, however, before he became sick of talking about people with addictions, and wanted to talk with them, so he began practicing in drug court.  He explained his philosophy that criminal lawyers play a “sacred role” in court so that every defendant knows they “got a fair shake.”  He described how this experience changed his thinking about criminal justice and supervision, as he witnessed that jail time, followed by over-supervision after release, could “crush people” and keep them from reaching their potential as productive members of society.

The Senator then moved on to discussing his views on the need for criminal justice reform, which have been formed by both his personal experiences and his study of the larger issue.  For example, he shared this stunning statistic: 40 years ago the prison population in Massachusetts state prisons was under 2,000 and had been holding fairly steady for decades.  But between 1975 and the early 1990s, that population increased five-fold to around 10,000 individuals, where the level has more or less remained for the last twenty years.  Senator Brownsberger said when he looked into these statistics alongside legislative reforms made during that time period, he could not entirely link the massive prison population increase to major legislative changes.  He concluded that the increase was actually the result of a general societal “tough on crime” push that affected not only legislators but also police, district attorneys, judges, and the public as a whole.  The question now is, can we dial that back? And if so, how?
IMG_7950Furthermore, if it’s the case that the current incarceration problem stems from a larger systemic shift, it is likely that the Legislature cannot solve it alone.  While the Senator expressed some frustration that major reforms have been delayed in the recent past to await the results of outside studies, he was excited about the recent study on Justice Reinvestment being undertaken in Massachusetts by Pew and the Council of State Governments — and by the potential their work holds for bringing the state’s leaders together on criminal justice reform.  He hopes that the state will pass some limited reform bills this session (what he termed hitting “singles and doubles”, such as easing the burden of post-release driver-license suspensions for drug offenders) and then make a push for major, comprehensive reforms in 2017.

While mandatory minimum sentences – which the BBA has long opposed — are certainly a part of the problem, the Senator explained that he felt their impact was sometimes overstated, as they are responsible for less than 20% of the inmate population at both prisons and houses of correction.  He hopes to:

  • increase prisoners’ ability to earn “good time” in order to ultimately shorten their sentences
  • re-classify certain inmates into lower-security facilities as their release nears, in order to better prepare them for re-entry, and
  • rework probation and parole by reducing or eliminating fees and addressing the problem of redundant dual supervision of one ex-offender by both agencies.

These and other steps are aimed at revamping the justice system to make it more supportive of successful re-entry.

We thank the Senator for his insights into the criminal justice system and look forward to working with him on future reforms.  In the meantime, we hope that you will join us at Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid on January 28 to hear speeches by BBA President Lisa Arrowood, MBA President Bob Harnais, and state government leaders and then meet with your State Senator and Representative.  Tell them how much civil legal aid funding means to you, voice your support for appropriating a much-needed $27 million to the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC – line item 0321-1600), and start a dialogue that you can continue throughout the budget process — and into the future on issues of interest to you, such as the criminal justice reforms Senator Brownsberger and others are working on.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Massachusetts leads, SCOTUS follows? Retroactivity in Juvenile Life Sentencing

Earlier this week, the US Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Montgomery v. Louisiana.  The transcript is available here.  The case addresses, along with jurisdictional concerns, whether the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama has retroactive effect.  In criminal cases, the Supreme Court’s rulings generally do not have retroactive effect unless the new rule is considered “substantive.”  Miller declared mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for homicides committed by minors to be in violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, and required judges in such cases to consider the defendant’s youth, background, and capacity for rehabilitation, as well as the nature of the crime, before handing down a sentence without parole.  Miller followed Graham v. Florida (2010) which prohibited life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-homicide offenses.

Montgomery brings to SCOTUS the case of Henry Montgomery, a 69 year old who has been in prison since he was 17 years old for murdering a sheriff’s deputy in Baton Rouge.  He argued in state court that the Miller holding must be applied retroactively, thereby making him eligible for parole.  The case rose to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which held against Montgomery.  The US Supreme Court granted certiorari in late March of this year.  Louisiana argued in part that the Miller holding was not substantive enough to have retroactive effect, because life without parole sentences are still available for juveniles in homicide cases as long as they are not mandatory.

Should the Court find for Montgomery, about 1,500 prisoners convicted of homicide as juveniles and given mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole would suddenly gain parole eligibility.  While the Supreme Court is considering the case, analysts suggest that they may still skirt the question of Miller’s retroactive effect, waiting until a prisoner files suit under a federal habeas corpus statute rather than in state court.

Massachusetts dealt with this issue over the last couple of years.  In response to Miller, the SJC held in late December 2014 in Diatchenko v. District Attorney that all life without parole sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional in Massachusetts, even if imposed by a judge at her discretion. This decision came only weeks after the BBA approved principles opposing these sentences.  In Diatchenko, the justices considered – as had the Miller court — current scientific research showing that adolescent brains are not yet fully developed structurally or functionally before the age of 18.  But they reasoned that the proper conclusion is that a judge cannot possibly ascertain with any reasonable degree of certainty that a juvenile is irretrievably depraved and deserving of the life without parole punishment.

The plaintiff, Gregory Diatchenko, who had been serving a life without parole sentence for a murder he committed in 1981 at age 17, became immediately eligible for parole.  In addition, the Diatchenko holding also applied retroactively to other juvenile life without parole convicts who had served at least 15 years, making roughly 65 inmates suddenly parole eligible for the first time.  “Eligibility for parole” merely entitles an inmate to a hearing.  At that point it is up to the parole board to consider whether the prisoner has changed, has taken full responsibility for his or her actions, and poses no threat to public safety.  However, the ruling did eventually result in the release of at least a few individuals in Massachusetts who had been serving these sentences.

Diatchenko also invited the Legislature to revise its juvenile-murder sentencing scheme to come into line with the ruling which stated that juvenile offenders must receive a “meaningful opportunity” for parole, without defining the appropriate length of the mandatory portion of a sentence before eligibility.  As we described, after a contentious hearing in May 2014, lawmakers agreed on a compromise bill, H4307, that would permit parole eligibility after 25-30 years for juveniles convicted of premeditated murder and after 30 years for juveniles found guilty of murder with extreme atrocity or cruelty.  Juveniles convicted of felony murder would be parole eligible after 20 to 30 years.  The bill was enacted in July 2014.

We are proud that the Massachusetts Judiciary and Legislature successfully addressed the retroactivity issue in the wake of Miller, and we hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will use Montgomery as an opportunity to set the record straight for the individuals in other states who are serving sentences under a sentencing scheme now recognized as unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.  A decision is expected by late spring, and we will keep you posted on the latest developments with this case.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Who’s Leading the Fight Against Mass Incarceration?

We are thrilled that Roca will be the 2016 BBA Adam’s Benefit’s Public Service Honoree.   Roca is a wonderful organization that works to “disrupt the cycle” of incarceration and poverty by helping young people in the Greater Boston area transform their lives.  Roca works with at-risk youths aged 17-24, many of whom are on the streets, have a history of legal problems, are involved in gangs, have dropped out of school, and/or are young parents.  The organization intervenes based on a scientific, data-driven model that has been proven effective at getting these young people the support, education, and jobs they need to stay out of trouble, earn a living, and have a positive impact in their communities.  Most importantly, Roca’s system works. Since its founding in 1988, the organization has helped more than 18,000 young people change their lives.

Roca’s important work complements our own policy efforts.  We have written before about the BBA’s position opposing mandatory minimums and our efforts to remove them in Massachusetts.  Earlier this summer, we were part of the discussion in the legislature, when BBA President Julia Huston provided testimony at a public hearing on mandatory minimum drug sentences.  In recent weeks, we have seen some momentum building around this issue on Beacon Hill.  We learned that Governor Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, and SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants all signed onto a letter asking the U.S. Department of Justice and the Pew Center for the States to review and analyze Massachusetts criminal-justice policies, making recommendations on what works well, what doesn’t, and what changes can be made to improve the system. Though the timeline for this report remains unclear, we are hopeful it can make a difference this legislative session (watch a video of the Governor speaking about this study).

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg has been particularly vocal about the need for so-called “justice reinvestment” – changing policies to reduce incarceration and using the attendant monetary savings on programs and initiatives to further that cause.  By many accounts it costs around $40,000 a year to incarcerate an offender, while other programs, such as parole, are far less expensive.  Rosenberg points to states such as Texas, Washington, and Oregon as models of this movement, and is pushing for Massachusetts to follow their lead.  So what have these states done to fix their sentencing models?

Texas

Texas managed to dramatically reduce its prison population and incarceration rates with changes only to its incarceration policies, and not its sentencing regime.  Until recently, the number of inmates in Texas was booming: the state’s prison population grew from 50,000 in 1990 to 173,000 in 2010.  Texas was building prisons as fast as it could, but still many prisoners were transferred to for-profit prisons in other states.

Recognizing that this growth was unsustainably expensive, Texas lawmakers devised a treatment system.  They increased the amount of space in drug treatment programs and created intermediate sanction facilities, all at a fraction of the cost of warehousing inmates.  They also increased the amount of pre-trial diversion programs for people suffering from mental health illnesses and drug addiction.  These reforms have resulted in large drops in the prison population, the closing of a number of prisons, and a nearly 6% drop in the recidivism rate.  Crime is now at the lowest rate since 1968 and the closure of three prisons has saved $3 billion.

Washington

While Washington may have been a leader in drug law reform, becoming one of the first states to legalize recreational use of marijuana in 2012, it still has a way to go with sentencing reform.  According to a recent study, one in five prisoners in Washington is serving a life sentence, compared to one in nine nationally.  This is largely the result of the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act, which eliminated parole, and two subsequent voter-approved initiatives – the 1993 “three strikes” law, mandating life without parole for three serious felony convictions, and the 1995 Hard Time for Armed Crime law, requiring mandatory sentences for gun crimes.

The report also found a disparate impact on racial minorities (28% of those serving life without parole sentences are African-Americans although they comprise only 4% of Washington’s population) and exorbitant expense (an average life sentence costs $2.4 million per prisoner).

The Legislature appears to be taking notice.  Earlier this year, the House approved a bill to amend the “Hard Time for Armed Crime” law to give judges more discretion.  If enacted, the bill would permit judges to depart from the currently mandatory additional 18 to 60 month prison time in all every gun-related felonies if they feel the mandatory sentence enhancement results in a “clearly excessive” sentence.

Oregon

In only the last couple of years, Oregon has made major strides to curb its mandatory sentencing regime.  The state had operated under its so-called Measure 11 structure since 1994, whereby there were long mandatory sentences for 16 designated violent and sex-related offenses, “earned time” was prohibited, and juvenile offenders were tried in adult court.

As a result, the state built a prison system widely recognized as a national leader – “the system uses prison sparingly, locks up the right people and helps keep them from reoffending.”  Even though Oregon ranked well nationally in many statistics – holding the lowest recidivism rate, and ranking 33rd nationally in incarceration, incarcerating people at a rate that was 25% lower than the national average – it was still spending too much.  In 2013, lawmakers approved reforms to Measure 11, cutting sentences for crimes such as marijuana possession and felony driving, giving judges more discretion.  The result has been a decrease in prison populations and some savings that are being funneled to local governments for crime prevention measures.

As you can see, the sentencing policies for each of these states have their pros and cons.  They are all worth considering as Massachusetts prepares to reform its own policies.  We look forward to becoming the model for other states, and, hopefully, one without mandatory minimums.  In the meantime, we hope you will join us in a few months when we honor Roca for their outstanding work to keep young people out of the criminal justice system altogether.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

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