Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants got a taste Monday of the opposition he faces as he crusades to abolish mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.
Shortly after Gants described his views to dozens of lawyers and judges at a legal summit, a top prosecutor blasted the plan before the same crowd.
"It is not a new, innovative idea, but a return to the failed policies of the 1980s," Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said at the Second Annual Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Conley was invited to the summit to speak on a panel about justice for inmates and offenders with drug addiction and mental health problems.
But instead, Conley used his speaking turn to launch a 10-minute rebuttal of Gants's remarks, arguing that the state's 11 district attorneys have exercised their power to seek mandatory minimum sentences — automatic prison terms for those convicted of certain crimes — in drug cases "judiciously and wisely."
Conley pointed to the dramatic drop in crime in Boston since the 1980s and early 1990s.
"Minimum mandatory sentences aren't the only reason" for the decrease, Conley said. "But we really have our head in the sand if we think they're not part of it."
In his keynote address, Gants spoke about the need to reform laws that he said have led to overly long sentences that are disproportionate with the crime. The sentences, he said, punish drug couriers as if they are kingpins, and place a financial burden on the state, where prisons are beyond capacity.
"In addition, they are unfair to minority populations; they fail to address the drug epidemic; and they are a poor investment of public funds," Gants said in a speech that brought most of the crowd to its feet. "When some district attorneys say they fear judicial leniency, they really are saying that they do not want to relinquish to judges the power to impose sentences that mandatory minimum sentences give to prosecutors. They would prefer that prosecutors decide what sentence a drug dealer receives."
During a break in the summit, Gants, who is a former prosecutor, told reporters that he has reached out to district attorneys as he pushes his agenda, which mirrors a national movement to shorten sentences for drug offenders.
"It's a work in progress," Gants said.
Conley's remarks underscored that statement.
Calling himself the "skunk in the garden," Conley said it is important to have a robust debate around the idea of reforming drug-sentencing laws.
Prosecutors have expressed before their opposition to the proposal, which Gants first announced in October 2014 during an address before the Massachusetts Bar Association.
In that speech, Gants called on the Legislature to pass laws to abolish mandatory sentencing, as part of a call for broader changes in the court system.
Conley's forceful remarks in such a public setting surprised many people in the audience, some of whom shook their heads as he spoke. Still, others nodded vigorously and applauded warmly when he finished.
At the end of the summit, Conley and Gants shook hands and smiled.
Conley declined to describe what they said to each other.
Conley said he had planned to stick to his panel's topic but after hearing Gants's keynote address, he felt compelled to stray from the script.
"If [Gants] wants to argue in favor of a policy that was a failure 30 years ago, he can do it," Conley said. "But he can't do it and not expect a response."
Maria Cramer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @globemcramer.