It was an amazing event on Tuesday, June 9, to be part of the swarms of people who rallied, testified and stood up for justice at a hearing at the Statehouse in Boston by the Judiciary Committee on ending mandatory minimums and bail reform. The Gardner Auditorium only holds 600 and 200 stood outside after a rousing rally and march through the Statehouse. We are doing what Rep. Gloria Fox recommended: To storm the statehouse!
Here are some news reports on the day’s events.
DAs spar over drug sentencing at hearing
Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/File 2014Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants argued that mandatory minimum sentences impose one-size-fits-all penalties on convicts who should be treated individually.
By David Scharfenberg Globe Staff June 10, 2015
The state’s top judge and a panel of a half-dozen district attorneys sparred over legislation that would repeal mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes at a packed State House hearing Tuesday.
The face-off, pitting some of the most prominent figures in the judicial system against each other, cast them in unaccustomed roles.
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants acted as prosecutor, charging that mandatory minimums have a disproportionate impact on racial minorities, drain resources that could be spent on drug treatment, and impose one-size-fits-all penalties on convicts who should be treated individually.
“The drug dealer and his girlfriend who helps him package the drugs, the drug kingpin and the courier, the dealer who sells drugs to support his drug habit, and the dealer who sells to get rich may all be charged with the same crime,” he said. “But they do not deserve the same sentence. And a judge free to sentence would not give them the same sentence.”
The prosecutors, who testified immediately after Gants, played the role of the defense, arguing that existing mandatory minimums are an important crime-fighting tool used only sparingly to take down the worst offenders.
“What we are doing here in Massachusetts is working,” said Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley. “We are better, safer, and stronger than ever before. We can always improve. But to reverse course entirely makes no sense.”
The discussion over mandatory minimums marked the start of a broader debate on criminal justice reform in the state Legislature.
Lawmakers are weighing substantial changes to the state’s bail system, a reduction of low-level felonies such as shoplifting to misdemeanors, and the repeal of a law that requires the suspension of driver’s licenses for those guilty of drug crimes unrelated to the operation of a vehicle.
Conley, who did most of the talking for the district attorneys Tuesday, said he favors the driver’s license measure. And he cast himself, more broadly, as something other than a typical law-and-order prosecutor.
He noted that he has testified, in the past, in favor of legislation decriminalizing possession of hypodermic needles and for overhauling the criminal records law to make it easier for ex-convicts to find work.
Conley said he agreed with advocates that “over-incarceration does not work.” But he noted that Massachusetts has one of the smallest per capita prison populations in the nation. “Our incarceration rates are actually much closer to the liberal democracies of Western Europe than they are to the US average,” he said.
Gants acknowledged the state’s low incarceration rate. But he said it has increased by 500 percent since the mid-1970s. “I am not suggesting that we should return our rate of incarceration to where it was in the mid-1970s, but do we need to be five times higher?” he said. “Think how much money could be diverted to drug and mental health treatment if we were three or four times higher.”
Attorney General Maura Healey, who submitted written testimony to the Legislature’s judiciary committee before the hearing, favors repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses. The Massachusetts Bar Association is also behind the legislation.
Hundreds of advocates, wearing yellow “Jobs Not Jails” stickers, chanted in the State House hallways and filled the auditorium for the hearing.
Neighborhood Network News 6/9/15
State House News Service
- Gintautas Dumcius & Matt Murphy 6/9/15 5:22 PM
Activists rally outside the senate president’s office [Photo: Sam Doran/SHNS] | Video
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. Read More
AMID CHANTS OF ‘JOBS NOT JAILS,’ WRANGLING OVER SENTENCING REFORMS [+VIDEO]
By Gintautas Dumcius and Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JUNE 9, 2015…..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.]
Fox News Channel 25
Lawmakers weigh changes in mandatory drug sentences
Posted: Jun 09, 2015 4:46 PM EDT Updated: Jun 09, 2015 4:46 PM EDT
BOSTON (AP) – The state’s top judge is urging lawmakers to abolish mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, but several prosecutors disagree, calling such penalties an important law enforcement tool.
The Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee held a hearing on sentencing reform bills Tuesday as momentum appeared to be growing at least among Senate leaders for changes in laws that require judges to impose minimum prison sentences for certain drug offenses.
Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants called for the elimination of what he called a “one-size-fits-all” approach to punishing drug crimes.
Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley, speaking for several DAs, argued that abolishing all mandatory minimums would be a return to failed criminal justice policies of the past.
Dozens of activists opposed to the sentences chanted “Jobs Not Jail,” at a rally before the hearing.
Beacon Hill battle over mandatory minimum drug sentences heats up
State Rep. Benjamin Swan, D-Springfield, and other lawmakers speak about their support for repealing mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes.(SHIRA SCHOENBERG / THE REPUBLICAN)
By Shira Schoenberg | firstname.lastname@example.org Springfield Republican
on June 09, 2015 at 5:30 PM, updated June 09, 2015 at 5:31 PM
BOSTON – The debate over whether to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes is heating up on Beacon Hill.Beacon Hill
As the Legislature considers bills that would eliminate mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders, hundreds of activists rallied at the Statehouse on Tuesday to support the move.
“Mandatory minimum sentencing is morally indefensible,” said state Rep. Benjamin Swan, D-Springfield, who sponsored one bill to eliminate mandatory minimums. Swan said mandatory minimum sentences take away discretion from the judicial branch and are extremely costly.
But the state’s prosecutors strongly oppose eliminating mandatory sentences.
“It’s not the folks who are suffering from addiction, it’s not the first time offenders who these mandatory minimums apply to,” said Hampden County District AttorneyAnthony Gulluni. “It’s the folks who are trafficking in very serious drugs who are poisoning our streets in Springfield, in Holyoke and all over Hampden County.”
The Massachusetts Legislature has, in past years, reformed mandatory minimum sentencing but resisted pushes to eliminate the sentences altogether. The state’s sentencing commission is currently reviewing the state’s sentencing guidelines in order to make policy recommendations.
Recently, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants has emerged as a vocal spokesman for eliminating mandatory minimums.
Currently, Massachusetts has mandatory minimum sentences for a variety of drug trafficking crimes; for a second or subsequent offense of distribution or possession with intent to distribute certain drugs; distribution or possession with intent to distribute to a minor; or drug violations near a school. The mandatory sentences range from one year to 15 years, depending on the offense.
Speaking before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary Tuesday, Gants said mandatory minimum sentences have a disparate impact on people of color. He said 44 percent of drug offenses are committed by people who are black or Hispanic, but those groups account for 75 percent of those who get mandatory minimum sentences.
Gants said the money spent incarcerating these offenders could better be spent on drug treatment programs, mental health services and probation supervisors. Gants argued that lower crime rates do not correlate with stricter sentencing. He said mandatory sentences give too much discretion to prosecutors, who can hold mandatory minimum sentences over defendants to force them to accept a plea bargain.
“Mandatory minimums are neither individualized nor evidence based,” Gants said.
When it comes to drug crimes, he said, “One size doesn’t fit all.”
Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley, who sat on a panel with five other district attorneys, responded that lifting mandatory minimums “is a return to the failed policies of the past.”
Conley said mandatory minimums were put in place to avoid situations in which judges were treating wealthy, white drug defendants differently from poor, black defendants.
He said prosecutors already use discretion so that those defendants sentenced to jail for drug use tend to be those who are inciting violence, dealing drugs or have long criminal histories.
He pointed out that Massachusetts ranks 48th in the number of people it incarcerates as a percentage of population.
As of March, according to state statistics, fewer than 1,000 people in Massachusetts Department of Corrections custody were serving mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.
“Our aim is not to put everyone in jail, but to reserve jail for the most violent offenders,” Conley said.
A contingent from Springfield was among the protesters, who were organized by a coalition of community organizing groups representing low-income individuals, ex-prisoners, the black community and others.
The Rev. David Lewis Sr. of Springfield, a minister at Mount Calvary Baptist Church, said prisoners serving mandatory minimum sentences are restricted from work release, and it is then harder for them to reintegrate into society once they are released. “Mandatory minimums are detrimental to society,” Lewis said.
Bill Toller, who came with the Pioneer Valley Project, a group of labor and religious organizations, and is also a consultant for Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe, said similarly that inmates serving mandatory minimum sentences are often ineligible for community programs. A judge is unable to tailor their sentences to the individuals.
“Our concern is mandatory minimums are not shown to really work,” Toller said. “The criminal justice system should be more responsive to people’s needs.”
The effort to repeal at least some mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders has some powerful backing. Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat, wrote in a letter to the judiciary committee that she supports repealing mandatory minimums that do not involve drug trafficking or minors – for example, mandatory minimum sentences for distribution of certain drugs and for repeat offenses of heroin possession.
“I believe history shows we cannot incarcerate our way out of this public health crisis, and we need smart reforms that will allow us to focus on treatment for those we are most able to help,” Healey wrote. She said incarcerating an inmate costs an average of $47,000 a year, and 80 percent of state inmates have a substance abuse problem.
Senate President Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, is pushing for Massachusetts to implement a program called “justice reinvestment” where a national organization pairs up with states to identify ways to make the criminal justice system more effective. Rosenberg said he hopes Massachusetts will move toward eliminating some mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses. He thinks the state must do more toward providing treatment for criminals with substance abuse or mental health problems.
Rosenberg said he wants to hear concrete recommendations from the judiciary committee. “It seems to me the folks where we probably ought to be putting our focus on are people causing the problems rather than people who become victims of the system,” Rosenberg said.
Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, has not joined the call for change.
“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,” Baker said in a prepared statement, which did not directly address whether he would support eliminating any mandatory minimums.
“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,” he said.
It will be up to the judiciary committee to decide whether to recommend passage of the bills or to recommend further study. State Rep. John Velis, D-Westfield, a judiciary committee member, said he supports repealing any mandatory minimum sentences for crimes of possession, but not for drug trafficking or distribution.
“How can we as elected leaders acknowledge how profound and crippling the opiate crisis we are facing is, with people literally overdosing every day, not to mention those who survive and suffer each day, and then in the same breath say that we should repeal mandatory minimum sentences for people distributing this poison that is leading to these overdoses and deaths?” Velis said.