The Massachusetts Bar
Association, led by President Edward W. McIntyre, testified in
favor of eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent
drug offenses, reforming CORI laws and reducing the
1,000-foot school-zone buffer, before the Joint Committee on the
Judiciary at the Statehouse on July 27.
McIntyre was just one of dozens of
sentencing reform supporters who presented testimony over the
course of several hours in a sweltering auditorium that at its
height was brimming with a standing-room-only crowd.
The committee is considering more
than 80 criminal justice-related bills, including legislation
filed by Gov. Deval Patrick that would make convicted drug
offenders eligible for parole after serving two-thirds of their
sentence. Patrick testified along with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino,
Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea J. Cabral, legislators, corrections
officials, police chiefs, community groups, citizens with CORI
records and family members of those serving mandatory minimum
"We need to reduce recidivism by
ensuring that offenders are given the tools they need to succeed
when returning to society," McIntyre said. "We need to ensure that
offenders are treated the same in or out of the court system
whether they live in the suburbs, the country or a city, where
nearly every square inch is a school zone."
McIntyre was joined in his testimony
by former MBA Criminal Justice Section Chair Lee J. Gartenberg,
Boston Bar Association President Kathy B. Weinman, Massachusetts
Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers President John H. Cunha and
MACDL Past President Martin R. Rosenthal. The group spent about 30
minutes presenting their arguments to the committee.
Copies of a report released by the
MBA in May that calls for treating rather than prosecuting
nonviolent drug offenders were presented to committee members and
legislators. "The Failure of the War on Drugs: Charting a New
Course for the Commonwealth," a product of more than one year of
research and consideration, contains provisions that could save the
state more than $25 million a year. (See related story on page
Gartenberg, who has been working
with the MBA on sentencing issues for more than a decade, told the
committee that mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws and
too-strict rules for probation violations hinder corrections
officials from properly classifying and treating each prisoner.
"The use of one-size-fits-all
mandatory sentences flies in the face of the method of individual
sanction and treatment favored by experts. Mandatory sentences
impose punishment based on the offense with no regard for
information about the offender," said Gartenberg, who is director
of Inmate Legal Services for the Middlesex Sheriff's Office.
For example, Gartenberg said,
mandatory drug sentences often prohibit prisoners from
participating in beneficial programs, including work release, and
could mean they are housed in high-security areas with those who
could be a bad influence.
"Given that incarceration in a
correctional facility is estimated to cost up to 10 times the cost
of community supervision, does it make sense to spend far more
taxpayer money on a system that is widely believed by experts to be
less successful?" Gartenberg said.
Judges must also have flexibility in
formulating sanctions for probations violations, Gartenberg said.
The Supreme Judicial Court has ruled judges have limited options:
either keep the person on probation, or commit the person to serve
the entire suspended sentence. Gartenberg said judges should have
additional options, including committing the person to serve a
portion of the suspended sentence.
"The problem with forcing the judge
to impose all-or-nothing sentencing options is that often the
punishment doesn't fit the crime," Gartenberg said. "It also
minimizes consideration of individual factors regarding the
probationer. Therefore, the court is forced to be either too
lenient or too strict."
Gartenberg also reiterated the MBA's
long-standing belief that CORI needs to be reformed, and reviewed
for the committee a report recommending several changes approved by
the House of Delegates in 2006. The MBA supports improved
verification of criminal records, prompt methods for correcting
incorrect information, access to criminal records for judges,
prosecutors and law enforcement officials, and reduced waiting time
for sealing of records of old convictions.
The MBA is committed to working with the Legislature on
sentencing reforms over the coming weeks.