Crooked chemist Annie Dookhan has turned Massachusetts into a criminal justice laboratory by creating the perfect conditions for the premature return of hundreds of convicted felons to the streets. Similar to a chemistry experiment, the legal system is about to find out what it is made of and how it reacts to different conditions.
The forced experiment has gone surprisingly well since August when the Patrick administration shuttered the miserably managed state laboratory where Dookhan worked. Court workers in a judicial boiler room are rapidly identifying and prioritizing cases stemming from Dookhan’s admission that she mishandled and falsified drug evidence, potentially jeopardizing 34,000 criminal cases. Special sessions of the Trial Court are expediting those cases. And state prisons are convening special reentry panels to connect freed inmates with the social services that might prevent them from offending again.
This process has just begun, however. Motions to set aside convictions and suppress evidence by the thousands can be expected to rain down on the Commonwealth. And that’s in addition to the immediate need to deal with the more than 1,100 people sent to state and county prisons on potentially tainted evidence. Prosecutors says they will need $50 million to perform a case-by-case analysis of Dookhan’s poisoned portfolio. The defense bar, you can be certain, won’t settle for less.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts rightly warns that the scandal “will trigger an explosion of litigation.’’ Granted, the rights group is no fan of drug prosecutions even when the evidence hasn’t been tainted. But this time, the ACLU makes a powerful argument to dismiss certain categories of cases outright instead of going through years of drawn-out litigation.
This is sound advice, especially in the cases of convicted individuals who were not charged with violent crimes or weapon offenses in addition to their drug charges.
“They are the cases least likely to be worth litigating again because they are the cases least likely to have been worth litigating in the first place,’’ reads a recent letter from the ACLU to the state attorney general and county prosecutors. It’s tough to argue with that logic, especially with recent legislative efforts to provide parole to prisoners with similar profiles serving mandatory minimum drug sentences.
Still, communities will need to guard against the inevitability that some dangerous people will be returning to their old haunts. Scores of prisoners already have been released on bail and many more will follow. Local officials will be lining up for emergency funds for added police protection, emergency shelters, substance abuse programs, job training, and other social programs. The Patrick administration and state lawmakers should be careful, however, that they don’t get mugged in the process by urban mayors.
Mayor Menino, for example, has told the Patrick administration that Boston will need at least $15 million to cope with the expected arrival of 600 inmates from state and county prisons. But the city’s request is short on details. State officials will need to weigh the accuracy and expected outcomes of such requests before committing public funds.
The state Department of Correction currently releases about 2,500 prisoners each year. Many mechanisms are already in place to smooth their reentry, including access to medical insurance, housing advice, and social programs. Normally, such planning begins about three months before an inmate completes his sentence or becomes eligible for parole, according to Sandra McCroom, state undersecretary of criminal justice. Prison officials don’t have the luxury of time to prepare for the release of inmates unjustly imprisoned because of tainted evidence. But that is no reason to duplicate services or bend to unreasonable requests from local officials.
Clever criminologists should be lining up to study the fallout from the Dookhan cases. Several criminological studies have noted that the personality traits of drug dealers are consistent with other self-employed people — high tolerance for risk and a knack for entrepreneurship. Even undercover narcotics officers marvel at drug dealers’ willingness to work around the clock.
Any attempt to draw freed drug dealers into entry-level job training programs is probably doomed to fail. But if ever there was a time for criminologists to experiment with a program that steers drug dealers into opportunities to run their own legitimate businesses, this is probably it.
Lawrence Harmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.