In 2007-08 term, White launched Eco-Challenge, spearheaded criminal sentencing reform effort

Issue July/August 2008 By Bill Archambeault

David W. White Jr. finishes his term as president of the Massachusetts Bar Association having raised environmental awareness in the state’s legal community and helped set the stage for criminal sentencing reform.

While both initiatives are far from finished, White hopes the two priorities from his 2007-08 term have had, and will continue to have, a lasting impact on the legal profession.

"I was very happy with the many successes the MBA had this year," he said.

Eco-Challenge is launched

Under White’s direction, the MBA formed the Energy and Environment Task Force and launched the MBA Lawyers Eco-Challenge in partnership with the Conservation Law Foundation, the oldest regional environmental advocacy organization in the nation. White’s goal was to get lawyers and law firms to reduce their ecological impact (in part by pointing out how much money they could save by becoming ecologically responsible) and showcase the legal profession as a leader in the movement.

CLF Staff Attorney Susan M. Reid said there wasn’t much to decide when White reached out to CLF President Philip Warburg last year about forming a partnership.

"It was such a good idea that we wished we’d thought of it ourselves," Reid said. "It was a no-brainer for us to get involved and help make it a reality."

Other than the MBA, the only other state bar association with a similar program is Oregon, which does not partner with an independent environmental organization. The American Bar Association also has a program, but with much less participation, Reid said.

Four dozen law firms and solo practitioners signed on to the Lawyers Environmental Pledge as Pledge Partners, along with another 18 Signature Firms, by adopting the Green Guidelines, a comprehensive guide to help lawyers reduce energy and resource consumption. White said he was especially pleased that nearly 20 percent of the state’s largest 50 firms have signed on.

White said he’s been encouraged by the response so far, recognizing that habits are hard to change, particularly in a field that consumes paper at an average of 24 trees per lawyer each year.

"Moving to electronic storage of documents can really make a significant difference," he said.

Reid said she was impressed early during the planning process by the MBA’s commitment to making substantive, far-reaching improvements. It’s not unusual, she said, for companies or organizations to tout themselves as eco-friendly or "green" without actually doing anything, a ploy she referred to as "greenwashing."

"There was great sincerity from David and (MBA Executive Director) Marilyn Wellington," said Reid, who co-chairs the task force with Nancy B. Reiner, the executive director of Counsel on Call in Boston.

"CLF feels it is fortunate to be involved in this partnership (with the MBA)," Reid said. "This was a unique partnership. It was a smart thing to do because we’ve thought about a lot of these issues."

White is still pursuing "a new culture" that focuses on relatively simple changes like turning off unneeded lights, buying energy-efficient appliances and saving and transferring files electronically rather than printing reams of paper. Adopting energy-saving measures at the MBA has already cut electric use between 10 and 15 percent from a year ago, he said.

"The success of the program is revealed by how widely it’s been accepted across the state," White said. "In a broader sense, having lawyers out front on this issue has been great for our public image."

White even envisions a time, possibly in a few years, when the public will be able to consider choosing a lawyer or firm based on their environmental rating.

And the Eco-Challenge’s success has had another effect — businesses and other legal associations have contacted the CLF about forming partnerships like the MBA did, Reid said.

"We’ve been approached by others," she said, including a high-tech company and lawyers organizations from across the country. "They’ve seen the press, they’ve heard about it and they’re reaching out to us."

She credits White with providing both the vision and leadership to get the initiative underway, as well as the time and commitment to remain closely involved over the course of the year. White even participated in regional eco-fairs and manned tables at such events for the MBA.

"The importance of the role that David played can’t be overstated. He served as such an important catalyst for bringing about change," Reid said. "He was intensively involved throughout. He brought real passion and leadership. He made it easy to be involved in the effort, and fun."

Criminal sentencing

Though he’s a civil litigator, the treatment of prisoners has always concerned White. As a student at Northeastern University School of Law, he took part in a prisoners’ rights project that resonated with him.

"I don’t have any illusions that there are some violent criminals who should be in prison," White said. However, he questions policies that emphasize lockup over treatment and rehabilitation when drug or alcohol addiction are the primary cause of the criminal conduct.

"I see that we’re destroying families and communities with the high rate of incarceration," he said, explaining his attempt to help get significant criminal sentencing reform passed this year.

However, sentencing reform legislation was not taken up by legislators before the end of the year’s session in July. Even though the bill was lacking the substantial elements sought by advocates like White, there had been hope that the bill would pave the way for more substantial reform efforts next year.

White’s argument for rethinking knee-jerk prison sentences isn’t based just on compassion or what he thinks the most effective solution is. He also sees the state’s incarceration policies as a financial issue because, he argues, the state is wasting millions of dollars building prisons and locking prisoners up when there are more effective, less costly options.

"The vast majority of crimes are related to drugs and alcohol," White said, noting that the state is spending $1.4 billion on incarceration for drug offenders each year. And that doesn’t include costs associated with the Department of Social Services, health costs caused by addictions, and lost productivity.

The state, he said, could more effectively reduce crime — and save millions each year — by beginning education as early as the fifth or sixth grade and providing treatment on demand.

Treatment on demand needs to be affordable and accessible for people in impoverished communities, White said, and not just an option for people who can afford expensive rehabilitation clinics. The problem is even more pressing for those fighting dual demons of mental illness and drug or alcohol addiction, he said.

At either the November or January House of Delegates meeting, White expects the Drug Policy Task Force, which he chairs, to propose legislation.

"The problem with this issue and debate is that it’s been focused on criminal conduct," he said, adding that sensationalism in the media often trumps public willingness to support treatment instead of incarceration.

"The Legislature needs to feel they have public opinion behind them," he said.

White has worked with other organizations to build support for the issue. While the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association has not supported the change, the MBA has built a stronger relationship with the MDAA this year by working on a number of issues.

William J. Leahy, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said that a bill working its way through the Legislature would have taken only small steps to reform the state’s sentencing policy. But even that, he said, was an important first step in addressing what has been an untouchable subject for the last 25 years. The bill, however, wasn’t voted on before the end of this year’s legislative session.

Leahy credits White with not only throwing the MBA’s support behind the initiative, but for putting in the time and work at being a "major player" in the yearlong push for new legislation. After announcing sentencing reform would be one of his priorities, White organized a Sentencing Symposium at the Statehouse on Oct. 23 that helped set the framework for the debate.

"The investment has been very significant on the part of the Mass. Bar. The Mass. Bar has been a full-fledged and energetic partner," Leahy said.

White found an ally in Washington state Rep. Roger Goodman, who visited Massachusetts twice to lend his expertise on this issue, emphasizing rehabilitation over incarceration. Goodman was a panelist at the MBA’s Sentencing Symposium in October and returned for the inaugural meeting of the MBA’s Drug Policy Task Force in April.

Accomplishing the larger goal of shifting the state’s incarceration policies, Leahy said, will require enlisting the support of non-lawyer groups, such as organizations representing women, health care and conservative fiscal policies.

"It should be everybody’s issue," he said, "and the Mass. Bar — being a very large, very influential organization that has prioritized this issue — has made a real difference under David’s leadership."

The 2007-08 term comes
to an end

Some of the MBA’s success in launching large new undertakings, White said, is due to the fact that there were no major legislative or judicial crises during his term that distracted his attention from his priorities.

White said that working with other bar associations and activists across the state — including the annual Walk to the Hill for Legal Aid and organizing a show of support for the legal system under siege in Pakistan — has been one of the most personally rewarding aspects of his term. Along those lines, White said it’s been "very rewarding" working with leaders from other professions on legislation and programs aligned with the MBA. White said that as his term was wrapping up, he was looking forward to focusing more energy on his firm, Breakstone, White & Gluck PC in Boston.

"I feel like the year was pretty busy," he said. "It was a wonderful privilege to represent the Massachusetts Bar Association and represent the lawyers of Massachusetts."