Drug Policy Task Force aims to put sentencing reform legislation on November HOD agenda

Issue September 2008 By Bill Archambeault

The Drug Policy Task Force of the Massachusetts Bar Association is working under an aggressive deadline to draft sentencing reform legislation for consideration at the Nov. 19 House of Delegates meeting in Salem.

The task force is hoping to generate a report and distribute it to section councils for their review in October, then follow that with a favorable vote at HOD in November. With HOD’s support, a sentencing reform bill could be placed on the legislative agenda at the Statehouse by Dec. 1 before the session begins in January.

This past spring, proponents of reforming to the state’s criminal justice policies were encouraged when a bill advanced out of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, even though it addressed only a few of the reforms they’d hoped for. But the legislation was not voted on before the end of the session, and would have to be resubmitted in the next legislative session to become law.

Immediate Past President David W. White Jr., who championed the reform effort during his 2007-08 term, criticized the state’s emphasis on incarceration over treatment as a failed practice that tears at communities, does little to correct the problem and wastes millions of dollars a year.

White convened the task force in April, and recently asked it to draft the legislative report in order to not only sustain the effort, but to frame the debate and pave the way for substantive reform.

Task force members acknowledged the importance of not only getting the report completed on time, but also working to convince the Legislature to enact it.

"I don’t think we should lose any steam at all," said task force member Lee J. Gartenberg. "The report, to me, is essentially a snapshot, not an endgame."

White agreed, stressing the importance of explaining the problem, proposing a solution, and then working to educate the Legislature and the public about why it should be passed into law.

"(Submitting a report to HOD) can’t be the end of our momentum here," White told the group at its Aug. 18 meeting in Boston.

Task force Vice Chair Michael D. Cutler, of the Law Office of Michael D. Cutler in Brookline, said legislators were concerned about approving a bill without having adequate time to debate it. The hope is that by getting something on the agenda before the start of the new year, there will be ample time for consideration.

Cutler said he’s optimistic that the task force will be able to reach a consensus on two major points: that the current situation is not acceptable, and the broad guidelines needed to correct it.

The task force may not have enough time to agree  on what needs to be done specifically, he said, but he expects it will be able to reach a consensus on the broad guidelines for correcting problems with the current policies and system. Details can be agreed upon later, he said; the most important thing is getting the issue on the agenda.

Cutler likened the state’s sentencing policy to a "house that’s been rickety for a while, and now the roof is leaking." The growing number of people in Massachusetts prisons is one indication of how flawed the current system is, he said.

White was able to assemble a task force that includes representatives from an "unprecedented" range of professions, Cutler said, in part because there’s a growing recognition of how badly the system needs to be overhauled.

"It’s everybody’s problem," he said. "It’s something we’ve left for so long that it’s not just legislators’ and law enforcement’s problem."