BOSTON >> While activists and some lawmakers are advocating for criminal justice reforms aimed in part at reducing the number of people incarcerated, seven of the state's district attorneys — including Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless — pushed back on Wednesday with a call to shift the focus.
"The real problem in Massachusetts that we presently face is not in fact mass incarceration or harsh treatment of drug dealers, but recidivism and its driving forces," Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni told the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission. "Facts are clear: Incarceration is most often the result of violent behavior and substantial recidivism. The practices in Massachusetts are and have long been to resort to incarceration in only a few circumstances, most often when violence, recidivism and high level crimes are at play."
The 15-member independent commission, charged by the Legislature with recommending sentencing policies and practices, held its first public hearing on Wednesday since it was reconvened in 2014 by Gov. Deval Patrick. Chaired by Superior Court Judge Jack Lu, the commission is comprised of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and representatives from criminal justice, public safety, and victim agencies.
The hearing came at a time when criminal justice reform has been garnering significant attention on Beacon Hill, with bills proposing changes that the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, and a policy review underway by the Council of State Governments' Justice Center.
While district attorneys said that mandatory minimum sentences remained an important tool for fighting drug trafficking and the opioid epidemic, advocates and people who have served time in prison told the commission that the mandatory minimums can hinder attempts to re-establish a productive life after prison.
"I don't feel that my punishment was fitting to my crime," said Elizabeth Milhams, who told the commission she served a mandatory minimum sentence of 16 months in a California state prison after she was caught there with 3.5 grams of hallucinogenic mushrooms. She said she lost her job, her rented home and her car while she was in prison and unable to go to work or make payments.
"When I was paroled, I was paroled to nothing, and it was hard enough just to keep my head afloat, never mind worry about all the things I had lost and the credit rating I had ruined," Milhams said.
Milhams testified along with other members of the Jobs Not Jails coalition, including two men who said their felony had kept them from finding jobs, pushing them back towards crime to support themselves.
The two men, Valenti Baptista and Wilson Wadlow, said they had been driven to steal while fighting drug addictions and were charged with larceny over $250, a felony. One of the goals of the Jobs Not Jails coalition is to see an increase to the $250 level at which larceny becomes a felony instead of a misdemeanor.
"If this was turned into a misdemeanor and I wasn't convicted of these felonies, my whole life could have gone different up to this point," said Wadlow, a recovering drug addict who attends a residential treatment program in Charlestown. "I had trouble getting jobs. I feel like there's a stigma. Even though I'm a veteran of the United States Army, I feel like jobs don't look at that. They look at your felony conviction."
Others who testified told stories of being pressured by district attorneys to accept a plea deal for a lesser charge, saying they accepted out of fear of the harsher mandatory minimum for the original offense.
The seven district attorneys who testified together — Capeless, Gulluni, Michael O'Keefe of the Cape and Islands region, Timothy Cruz of Plymouth County, Jonathan Blodgett of Essex County, Daniel Conley of Suffolk County and Joseph Early of Worcester County — rejected that assertion.
"I think that's a bunch of nonsense right there," Blodgett said. "I would love to have a list of those cases that people talk about in the abstract, to take a look at that, because I've been doing this job for 13 years and if somebody thought that my office was being unfair and heavy handed in its use of mandatory minimums, I would find out pretty quickly."
The district attorneys said that Massachusetts' criminal justice practices make it a leader among the states, with incarceration a last resort here rather than a goal of the system.
Asked by commissioner Martin Rosenthal, a defense attorney, about the relatively lower rates of incarceration in other countries, the district attorneys said that was not a fair comparison. Gulluni cited the "ubiquitous" nature of guns in America and social problems that are not shared by other nations.
"There are places in the world where their penalties for certain activities are much more draconian than incarceration," O'Keefe said. "For example, they kill people. They cut off the hands of people who deal drugs in certain parts of the world."