Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants said Thursday he has commissioned a probe into sentencing disparities for minority defendants in the state's criminal justice system, saying Massachusetts should take "a hard look at how we can better fulfill our promise to provide equal justice for every litigant."
Gants, speaking before the legal community at the John Adams Courthouse, cited data collected by the state Sentencing Commission that show the state imprisons African-American defendants eight times more than white defendants. Hispanic defendants are imprisoned 4.9 times more than whites, Gants said.
The disparities are greater than what was reported at the national level, he added.
Gants said he has asked Harvard Law School to gather an independent research team to explore the reasons for the racial disparity in sentencing decisions.
"We need to learn the truth behind this troubling disparity and, once we learn it, we need the courage and the commitment to handle the truth," Gants said.
The chief justice was speaking in his third annual State of the Judiciary, sponsored by the Massachusetts Bar Association, and he said the state is in a unique position to enact true reforms to the criminal justice system.
"We are committed to the principle that a sentence should be no more severe than necessary to achieve the sentencing purposes of punishment, deterrence, protection of public safety, and rehabilitation," he said. "And we now understand that conditions of probation should be narrowly tailored because unnecessary probation conditions increase both the likelihood of a violation and of reoffense."
The announcement comes a few weeks after the Gants-led Supreme Judicial Court addressed the disparate number of arrests of minorities, and their treatment in the judicial system, in a ruling involving a Boston man's gun conviction.
Last month, the court tossed out the gun conviction and raised the point that a black person who walks away from a police officer could be attempting to avoid the "recurring indignity of being racially profiled." The unanimous ruling meant that police could not come to the conclusion that a black person who walks away from them is guilty of a crime.
The decision cited studies by the American Civil Liberties Union and Boston police, both of which found in a review of records from 2007 to 2010 that black people were more likely to be stopped and frisked by police.
Civil rights advocates lauded the September decision, but Boston police insisted that they do not engage in racial profiling. Boston Police have had generally good relations with minority communities.
"I don't believe we target anyone because of their race," Police Commissioner William B. Evans said after the September decision.
Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey, in remarks to the legal group Thursday, agreed with Gants that the courts needed to look at the effect of criminal justice in minority communities.
"We are actively involved in criminal justice reform, both with the Council of State Governments, and also internally and with our justice partners in the areas of pretrial conditions, supervision of high risk offenders, and bail and sentencing,'' Carey said.
"Encompassed in our work in the criminal justice area, we will look at the impact of our system on disparate populations, whether based upon race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status."
During his 30-minute address Thursday, Gants also spoke of improvements made in both the criminal and civil courts, such as helping litigants resolve issues in a more cost-effective manner.
The courts are also working to assist defendants who face financial challenges by reducing fees or detaching the threat of more punishment from them, saying "no defendant should be imprisoned or otherwise punished because he or she is too poor to be able to pay a fine, fee, or an order of restitution."
The court system has been partnering with the Legislature and the executive branch in a Justice Reinvestment Initiative being conducted by the Council of State Governments, which will help the state analyze policies and data to shape criminal justice reforms.
But, Gants said, the court system has already moved forward on some of those reforms, including best practices for evidence-based sentencing. Judges are looking at each particular defendant and the challenges they face and are considering all resources for a defendant, including mental health and drug and alcohol programs.
The state now has more specialty courts — including 25 adult drug courts, three juvenile drug courts, a family drug court, as well as seven mental health courts, five veteran courts, and two homeless courts — to better address issues of drug abuse, mental illness, and homelessness "that make it so difficult for so many defendants and families to get back on their feet."
Gants also called on the Legislature to fund the expansion of the state's housing court system to ensure residents in all areas of the state have equal access.