The state’s top judge and a panel of a half-dozen district attorneys sparred over legislation that would repeal mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes at a packed State House hearing Tuesday.
The face-off, pitting some of the most prominent figures in the judicial system against each other, cast them in unaccustomed roles.
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants acted as prosecutor, charging that mandatory minimums have a disproportionate impact on racial minorities, drain resources that could be spent on drug treatment, and impose one-size-fits-all penalties on convicts who should be treated individually.
“The drug dealer and his girlfriend who helps him package the drugs, the drug kingpin and the courier, the dealer who sells drugs to support his drug habit, and the dealer who sells to get rich may all be charged with the same crime,” he said. “But they do not deserve the same sentence. And a judge free to sentence would not give them the same sentence.”
The prosecutors, who testified immediately after Gants, played the role of the defense, arguing that existing mandatory minimums are an important crime-fighting tool used only sparingly to take down the worst offenders.
“What we are doing here in Massachusetts is working,” said Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley. “We are better, safer, and stronger than ever before. We can always improve. But to reverse course entirely makes no sense.”
The discussion over mandatory minimums marked the start of a broader debate on criminal justice reform in the state Legislature.
Lawmakers are weighing substantial changes to the state’s bail system, a reduction of low-level felonies such as shoplifting to misdemeanors, and the repeal of a law that requires the suspension of driver’s licenses for those guilty of drug crimes unrelated to the operation of a vehicle.
Conley, who did most of the talking for the district attorneys Tuesday, said he favors the driver’s license measure. And he cast himself, more broadly, as something other than a typical law-and-order prosecutor.
He noted that he has testified, in the past, in favor of legislation decriminalizing possession of hypodermic needles and for overhauling the criminal records law to make it easier for ex-convicts to find work.
Conley said he agreed with advocates that “over-incarceration does not work.” But he noted that Massachusetts has one of the smallest per capita prison populations in the nation. “Our incarceration rates are actually much closer to the liberal democracies of Western Europe than they are to the US average,” he said.
Gants acknowledged the state’s low incarceration rate. But he said it has increased by 500 percent since the mid-1970s. “I am not suggesting that we should return our rate of incarceration to where it was in the mid-1970s, but do we need to be five times higher?” he said. “Think how much money could be diverted to drug and mental health treatment if we were three or four times higher.”
Attorney General Maura Healey, who submitted written testimony to the Legislature’s judiciary committee before the hearing, favors repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses. The Massachusetts Bar Association is also behind the legislation.
Hundreds of advocates, wearing yellow “Jobs Not Jails” stickers, chanted in the State House hallways and filled the auditorium for the hearing.