By Michael Norton and Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- Candidates for major offices this year in Massachusetts are backing the repeal or reform of mandatory minimum criminal sentences for drug offenses, according to a report released Tuesday.
Families Against Mandatory Minimums found 92 percent of the 24 candidates who responded to its survey favored repeal or reform of mandatory minimum drug sentences, with 75 percent, including Republican candidate for governor Charlie Baker, supporting repeal of such laws.
"No candidate was in favor of longer mandatory minimum sentences or additional mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses," the group wrote in its report, released just over a week before the Sept. 9 primary elections.
In part as a pledge to Gov. Deval Patrick, legislative leaders vowed in 2012 to revisit criminal sentencing reform ideas in the 2013-2014 session but never got behind legislation to fulfill that promise.
In her questionnaire, attorney general candidate Maura Healey backed ending mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses, reforming bail to ensure that indigent defendants are not in jail for lack of ability to pay, and expanding the use of drug courts, mental health courts, and veterans treatment courts.
Attorney general candidate Warren Tolman referred the group to his "Smart on Crime" plan and wrote, "I not only support repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, I will lead the fight to repeal them!"
Cape & Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe bucked the trend, saying he would support reforms to minimum mandatory sentences but not an outright repeal, and disputed FAMM's contention that low level drug offenders are ensnared by laws intended to punish criminals higher up the food chain.
"Your contention that 'non-violent/low level drug offenders are receiving the same lengthy sentences intended for kingpins' is not true yet is repeated over and over again. Please supply me the name of one case. Just one. Thank you," O'Keefe wrote, noting his involvement with a 2012 sentencing reform law.
There is some difference on the subject of mandatory minimum sentences between the two candidates running for district attorney in Middlesex County, the most populous county in the state.
In a debate at Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, District Attorney Marian Ryan, who was appointed by Gov. Deval Patrick last year and supported by the governor in her bid for re-election, sought more information when asked a hypothetical question about whether she would show leniency for a 19-year-old college student with no record arrested for drug possession in a schoolyard. She said, "Some kind of probation is a possibility."
"I don't believe in mandatory minimum sentences for drug and non-violent drug sentences," responded Michael Sullivan, the elected clerk of superior courts who is challenging Ryan in the Democratic primary.
"I'm not a believer in mandatory minimums either, but what is a non-violent drug offense? I really don't know what that is, because drug offenses by their nature are non-violent unless there's a violent crime," said Ryan, who said she views heroin possession differently from marijuana possession.
Ryan declined to answer the questionnaire. In her response, Attorney General Martha Coakley, who is running for governor, said she supports "increased flexibility" for sentencing non-violent offenders.
"I support mandatory minimum sentences for the most dangerous criminals, like murderers and those who prey on children, but I support increased sentencing flexibility for individuals convicted of non-violent crimes," Coakley wrote.
"I support eliminating or curtailing inflexible and often counterproductive mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenses to provide judges with wider discretion in sentencing," Treasurer Steven Grossman, who is facing Coakley in the primary, wrote.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Don Berwick and Baker both supported repealing mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders. Baker's primary opponent, Mark Fisher, did not respond to the survey.
The three independents running for governor, Jeff McCormick, Evan Falchuk and Scott Lively, all supported repealing mandatory minimums for drug offenders, while McCormick said he would "stand behind tougher sentencing for more violent crimes or those involving 'king pins'."
"These results confirm that drug sentencing reform is now a mainstream issue," said Barbara Dougan, director of FAMM's Massachusetts project, in a statement. "Political candidates in Massachusetts are clearly eager to take a second look at our state's sentencing policies, just as federal and state legislators across the U.S. are doing."
When he signed a sentencing reform law in 2012, Patrick said he had been assured the Legislature that lawmakers would return to further reforms in the 2013-2014 session.
"The Senate President and the Speaker have pledged to return to the subject of mandatory minimum sentencing early in the next session. I take them at their word," Patrick said in a statement at the time.
The 2012 reform law lowered mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and also established a sentencing requirement that habitual offenders of certain violent crimes receive the maximum penalty.
The Legislature has not returned to sentencing reform. Asked about that in July, Senate President Therese Murray said she was following the will of the members.
"You see where the members are? It's a democratic process. I don't call the shots here. If the members want to do something we take it up," Murray told the News Service in July.
According to FAMM, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted new mandatory minimums for drug offenses in the early 1980s, and the group claims those sentences have been ineffective at deterring drug use with a $46,000 annual cost of incarcerating a drug offender in state prison. The group said it is meeting with members to prepare for the next legislative session, which begins in January.
FAMM survey online: