As a Boston courthouse held its first special session for drug cases tainted by the involvement of chemist Annie Dookhan, Mayor Thomas M. Menino sought $15 million from the Patrick administration to handle the potential release of hundreds of inmates.
An estimated 600 prisoners in Suffolk County, many with extensive criminal histories, could have their convictions tossed out because of suspected evidence tampering at a state drug testing laboratory by Dookhan, prosecutors say.
In anticipation, city leaders are deploying more police officers and specialized drug and gang units to guard against a surge in crime. They are also assembling “crisis reentry” teams of police, probation officers, and outreach workers to help freed inmates return to society. The teams began meeting Friday with inmates slated for release.
Menino announced last week he would be seeking some amount of state assistance and in a letter to the state’s finance secretary made a formal request for $15 million.
The city’s emergency program is “intended to mitigate the impact in our neighborhood of approximately 600 individuals reentering society from state institutions,” Menino wrote.
“I know that we share a common purpose in protecting our neighborhoods and in making sure that we don’t backslide from recent gains in violence prevention, neighborhood stability, and opportunity creation,” Menino added.
Beyond a bolstered police presence, the city will provide freed inmates emergency housing, education and job training programs, and mental health and substance abuse counseling.
The Patrick administration said it would review the request, along with those from other agencies and cities affected by the crisis. The administration has asked that budget requests be filed with them by Oct. 24. Additional spending must be approved by the Legislature.
“We must provide the necessary resources to address potential wrongful convictions and protect public safety while looking for opportunities to support reentry programs we know have a proven track record of preventing recidivism,” Alex Zaroulis, a spokeswoman for the state finance office, said in a statement.
Other agencies — including the state public defender’s office, trial courts, State Police, and the Correction Department — are expected to seek state assistance.
Prosecutors plan to ask for at least $10 million annually for the next few years to handle affected cases.
Dookhan is accused of falsifying thousands of results at the now-closed testing facility in Jamaica Plain, which had been overseen by the Public Health Department.
Prosecutors say Dookhan would alter drug samples to obtain a positive result and listed some samples as positive without testing them.
Officials say she may have compromised some 34,000 cases, a discovery that has sent the state’s criminal justice system into turmoil.
On Monday, inmates appeared in Suffolk Superior Court by teleconference, as their lawyers sought to have their sentences stayed while their cases are evaluated.
Similar special sessions dedicated to begin looking at the cases will be held in several counties over the next two weeks.
Already, more than 20 individuals have been freed since the potential evidence tampering came to light.
On Monday, prosecutors agreed to stays of sentences in at least 11 of 27 cases. In nearly every case, Judge Christine McEvoy ordered defendants to obey a curfew and wear a GPS monitoring device while the court evaluates their case. Another 30 cases will be heard Tuesday. “It’s really a remarkable process,” McEvoy said. “We’re learning as we go along.”
In one case, a defendant requested that his sentence remain in place despite Dookhan’s involvement. The decision was strategic: Because another conviction would keep him in jail until next spring, he might as well keep the clock running on the drug sentence, as well. “You know the system well,” McEvoy said.