State House hearing on mandatory minimums

Tuesday’s State House hearing on mandatory minimums showed signs of the beginning of a robust dialogue at the state legislative level on comprehensive criminal justice reform.

Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, echoing remarks he gave at the CJRC’s annual event in March, opened the hearing in staunch opposition to mandatory minimum sentencing. The model disproportionately affects people of color, diverts funds away from other programs in order to keep inmates in jail for excessive time, and doles out standardized punishments that do not reflect the nuance of the crimes.

Ralph Gants

“Mandatory minimum sentences are neither individualized nor evidence based,” Gants said. “One size does notfit all with respect to drug crimes.” Six district attorneys spoke in support of the policy, arguing that they use discretion in sentencing. Massachusetts’ incarceration rate is closer to Western Europe’s than the rest of America’s,Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley noted. 

(MassINC’s review of the figures shows European countries are lower by a factor of 3).

Ralph Gants“Our aim is not to put everyone in jail, but to reserve it for most violent offenders,” he said. Of the 72,000 criminal cases in Suffolk County, 15,000 were dismissed and 1,500 people incarcerated – about 4 percent of the original number of cases.

But when faced with questions about the racial disparities in the prison population from his former Assistant District Attorney, committee member Rep. Evandro Carvalho, Conley didn’t have specific numbers.

Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins did.

Eighty-seven percent of his population in jail is black or Latino.

“The disparity when you look at the racial makeup is outrageous,” he said. “Something is deeply wrong with the way that we’re doing this.”

The quantifiable impact of incarceration has recently been called into question; the Brennan Center for Justice released a report earlier this year stating that incarceration has not reduced crime since the 90s.

Last week, the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition in conjunction with the Brennan Center hosted over 200 members of the criminal justice community at the State House for a dialogue on the findings of their report. The impact of the event helped set the stage for the hearings, with the Boston Globe publishing a timely editorial against mandatory minimums for low level drug offenders prior to the hearing and several other local papers publishing a joint op-ed from MassINC and the Brennan Center

The report was also sighted by many who testified, including Chief Justice Gants, Sheriff Tompkins, and Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian among others. 

This issue clearly struck a chord with the public. The auditorium was at capacity. Advocates for eliminating mandatory minimums marched through the state house and down to the door of the auditorium chanting “Jobs not jails,” before being quieted by officials. People braved the stuffy heat in balcony seats, fanning themselves to keep cool.

Ralph Gants

As the hearing moved into testimonials, frustration with the current criminal justice system was apparent.

Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz implored the panel to think of the broader social impact incarceration has on communities.

Jailing people with a mandatory minimum sentence deeply affects communities and families, she said.

Senator Kenneth Donnelly argued that even before mandatory minimums are even a question, Massachusetts has a pretrial problem. He called the system, with 5,000 people awaiting trial across the state every day, “dysfunctional.”

He also raised the issue of cash-only bail,which could be easily paid by an affluent offender but presents an obstacle for a poorer one.

“Wealth should not play a role in any stage of our criminal justice system,” Donnelly said.

The committee members took testimony late into the evening, absorbing powerfully compelling stories and engaging with the dedicated citizens who waited many hours to share their experiences. Benjamin Forman, MassINC’s research director, was one of the last to testify. He said MassINC endorses a holistic reform approach, including repeal of mandatory minimums for drug offenses, greater use of validated risk assessments for pretrial and post release supervision decision-making, and improvements to the state’s criminal justice information systems.

“MassINC has come to see comprehensive reform as a serious strategy for reversing the hollowing out of the middle class” said Forman to the committee. 

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