As the Trump administration revives a tough-on-crime strategy, Beacon Hill continues its debate on rethinking how best to treat those convicted of crimes. That debate has put the spotlight on the usually subdued leader of the judicial branch, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants.
Gants renewed his call for the end of mandatory minimum sentences Monday, saying the cost of incarcerating so many members of society is untenable for the Commonwealth.
"Mandatory minimum sentencing is a failed experiment that must end. And it must end for all crimes, except the crimes of murder and repeated OUI offenses, not just for drug crimes," Gants said at a criminal justice summit hosted by MassINC.
Beacon Hill leaders have agreed on a bill that reforms rehabilitation programs and post-release services, but the legislation doesn't address sentencing. House Speaker Robert DeLeo has said further criminal justice bills will not be rushed through the lengthy committee process this session, while criminal justice activists are pushing for action now.
The Legislature has passed laws setting minimum punishments for some crimes ranging from murder to lower-level drug violations. Gants wants to empower judges to make their own decisions when handing out sentences, saying the minimums prevent criminals from being sent to drug abuse or rehabilitation programs.
"When persons commit crimes, we need to think carefully about whether those crimes are serious enough to require prosecution. And when they are, we need to think carefully about whether they require incarceration. And when they do, we need to think carefully about how much incarceration is required to deter, punish and protect the safety of the public and impose no more than that amount of incarceration," Gants said.
The chief justice's case was supported by new research from MassINC that found state spending on incarceration has grown 18 percent since fiscal year 2011, though the prison population has declined.
A survey by MassINC's polling arm also found that an overwhelming number of voters want to abolish mandatory minimums. The poll found that 46 percent of voters say judges should have sentencing discretion within guidelines, while 41 percent think sentencing judges should have complete authority over sentences. Only eight percent of surveyed voters said mandatory minimum sentences should be retained.
Congresswoman Katherine Clark told the summit crowd that policymakers need to look at the wider economic impact mass incarceration can have on communities as well as on federal government's bottom line.
"We simply can't afford to continue to spend $80 billion dollars - with a 'B' - annually on incarcerating Americans and as we are cutting other programs that support people, that create a safety net that create a way to step up to opportunity, we continue out spending and growth in that spending," Clark said of federal prison spending.
Clark said the policy work pending in Massachusetts (expect a vote later this summer) would become a model across the country.
"Unfortunately, the good news and the bad news is that you're it. There is no other buck to pass or place to go. It is going to be your individual and collective efforts that change the course of not only the path that our country is on, but were counting on all of you to be the ones who are going to pull that arc of the moral universe back towards equality, justice and opportunity," Clark said.
President Trump's Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a memo to Justice Department staff last week instructing them to "charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense" even for lower-level crimes like drug possession. This would essentially reverse Obama administration policy.
Clark warned that Sessions' move would strengthen the prison industry.
"We have to look realistically at the influence of the for-profit prison lobby that just got a big boost from Jeff Sessions... as he rolls back some reforms that were made there," Clark said.
After Sessions described the order as "moral and just," Clark called the move "anything but that."