MBA-backed criminal reform legislation returns for 2009-10 session

Issue March 2009 By Kelsey Sadoff

Criminal reform bills that failed to make it through last year’s legislative session are being reintroduced for the 2009-10 session with high expectations for their passage, which would usher in significant changes to the state’s criminal policies.

Last year, the Massachusetts Bar Association championed reforms to both sentencing guidelines and the Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) law, but the legislation was released from committee too late to advance before the end of the 2008-09 session. Immediate Past President David W. White Jr. made sentencing and CORI reform a priority for his term, and 2008-09 President Edward W. McIntyre has continued the push for reform.

The MBA is supporting a CORI bill that the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and a coalition of groups, under the name of Massachusetts Alliance to Reform CORI (MARC), are focused on having addressed by the Legislature. The MBA has proposed recommendations for the CORI bill, which includes addressing access (law enforcement access versus non-law enforcement entities), accuracy and sealing old records.

The MBA’s Drug Policy Task Force is also set to issue a report this year that will include comprehensive data and facts that will strongly support arguments for sentencing reform in Massachusetts.

“This new legislative session holds much promise in the advancement of criminal sentencing and CORI reform legislative measures,” said MBA General Counsel and Acting Executive Director Martin W. Healy. “Criminal justice reforms have been identified as a priority area of interest by a number of legislators. We are in the second half of the (Gov. Deval) Patrick administration and the governor is considered a veteran on the Hill. We are hopeful that Patrick will push hard on these greatly needed reforms.”

More than 20 years ago, mandatory minimum sentencing reforms for drug offenders were enacted in Massachusetts to deal with crimes including trafficking, possession with intent to distribute, distribution in a school zone and distribution to a minor. The mandatory minimum sentences effectively ended an offender’s opportunity for parole if incarcerated.

Speaking against the current mandatory minimum sentencing policy at the Jan. 15 MBA House of Delegates meeting, the Drug Policy Task Force received HOD endorsement on two pieces of drug and treatment legislation that the MBA will support during the 2009-10 legislative session.

HOD unanimously voted in favor of the proposed legislation, which would revise the drug sentencing structure by eliminating mandatory minimums for most drug dealing crimes and expand parole and work release opportunities for incarcerated drug offenders, while also enhancing the existing system of diversion of drug offenders to drug treatment programs as an alternative to incarceration.

“The MBA is taking a position because current drug policies have failed; because they are expensive (Department of Correction’s inmate cost is more than $47,000; county jail is $39,000) and growing exponentially,” said MBA President Edward W. McIntyre.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Correction, the state prison population increased by 384 percent from 1980 to 2008 and the number of drug offenders increased 2,394 percent, from 109 in 1980 to 2,610 in 2008. Since the enactment of mandatory minimum sentencing reforms, drug offenders have made up more than 25 percent of the state prison population, as opposed to the 4 percent of drug offenders making up the state prison population in 1980.

“Essentially, the MBA’s position is about deploying a public health approach rather than a failed criminal justices paradigm to drug offenders,” said McIntyre. “It’s about treatment rather than incarceration; about accelerated reintegration into the family unit, the community’s social structure and workforce. Studies from across the country and around the world demonstrate that intelligent policies that move away from the incarceration model to a treatment, accelerated assimilation program, reduce the rate of crime and the staggering cost of incarceration — which is the second most rapidly growing budget item next to health care.”

“Parole is really a function of getting a person in a productive relationship with society and their community,” said MBA immediate Past President David W. White Jr. and founding member of the Drug Policy Task Force. “Offering parole allows prisons to make room for more dangerous criminals, reducing the rate of crime overall by restoring families, neighborhoods and communities by making ex-offenders better citizens, and saves the taxpayers money.”

In the November 2008 general election, Massachusetts citizens voted to decriminalize marijuana. Legislators, who for years have been focused on discussion revolving around the belief that constituents want stronger punishments for low-level drug offenders, now have proof that the public actually wants to reduce the resources designated to punishment of low-level drug offenses. White believes the “commonwealth, now in severe economic crisis, can handle the drug sentencing issues in a way to save millions and millions of dollars.”

Furthermore, current mandatory minimum drug sentences have disproportionately impacted cities and their minority populations. Current school zone laws, which increase punishment drug offenses within 1,000 feet of a school with mandatory sentences — regardless of prior knowledge if school is in session, intent to distribute, time of day or awareness of proximity to a school — have created a situation where almost an entire city can be considered a school zone.

“The result is an impact on minorities,” said White. “The bill didn’t have that intent when it was enacted, but it has discriminatory consequences. We would like the statute changed to 100 feet.” White pointed out that approximately 300 people are sentenced for school zone offenses each year.

“In the commonwealth, we spend more money on jails and prisons then on higher education,” White said. “It is time for more sensible priorities.”