ABRIGAL FORRESTER REMEMBERS the day he climbed out of the prison van delivering him to state prison in Walpole. “I felt like I was walking into a pressure cooker of death. Everything just felt dismal,” he says of the morning in 1991 that he landed behind bars on cocaine trafficking charges. He was 20 years old. “I hadn’t even been an adult in society yet really,” he says. Forrester grew up in prison, where he spent the next 10 years on a mandatory drug sentence.
It’s not a place generally conducive to positive growth, but Forrester managed to find his bearings. Today, he has a family, a college degree, and a job directing community programs for Madison Park Development Corporation, a Roxbury nonprofit that builds affordable housing.
“I’ve been able to come home and go to school, and reconnect with the truth of who I am to be a better person. But it didn’t take 10 years to do that,” he says of the decade he served in prison. “What I needed were the right people and right opportunities.”
Forrester says he was an honor roll student in elementary school. And he tested into Boston Latin Academy, one of the city’s prestigious exam schools. But he had no older brothers or a father in his life as he hit his teen years in Dorchester’s tough Codman Square neighborhood during the height of the crime and drug wave of the late 1980s and early 1990s. “We had older characters who became our guiding mentors, so to speak, on how to survive and navigate this environment,” he says.
Those “mentors” guided him into the drug world, and, before long, it led to prison. The undercover agent he made his fateful sale to arranged several buys until he got Forrester to do a deal with more than 100 grams of cocaine, the threshold that triggered the 10-year mandatory sentence.
Though it was his first offense and he had no violent charges in his background, Forrester says the criminal justice system seemed determined to send him away for a long time. “The question should be, how did this person go astray?” he says. “What can we do, yes, to punish him, but also to get him back on track? There is a role for punishment, but also for restoring.”
BONNIE DITORO SUMS up her case in a way that is not uncommon among women who end up facing serious drug charges. “I wasn’t making the drug deal; I was the girlfriend,” she says.
But DiToro was there when the deal went down, and found herself facing the same high-level trafficking charge as her then-boyfriend.
“I shouldn’t have been dating that guy. I shouldn’t have been doing coke. I shouldn’t have been in that car,” says DiToro, who went into a cocaine-fueled descent following her husband’s 1994 suicide.
But she’s not the only one who exercised questionable judgment.
Her lawyer gave her horrible advice in suggesting they go to trial —the three years prosecutors laid out as their final offer in exchange for a guilty plea was as good as it was going to get. But the decision by the district attorney’s office to then charge her under the state’s mandatory minimum drug trafficking statute underscores why critics say the sentences are a blunt instrument not always wielded with discretion by prosecutors.
Her 15-year mandatory sentence didn’t just upend DiToro’s life, it also rippled through her family. Her mother, then 65, and her father, 68, took custody of DiToro’s adolescent son and daughter. Both kids wound up dropping out of school. Toward the end of DiToro’s sentence, her mother was also struggling to care for DiToro’s father, who had developed Alzheimer’s disease.
“It did a lot of damage,” DiToro, 57, says of the nightmarish ordeal. Thinking about it during her years in prison, she says, “I beat myself up bad.”
She was released three years ago. Her children, now 29 and 31 and parents themselves, are slowly getting back on track. And DiToro, who says she was always a diligent worker, landed a job near her Lunenburg home at a plastics manufacturer, where she’s already received several raises and regularly puts in 50 to 60 hours a week.
Carol Ball, who retired earlier this year after 19 years as a superior court judge, testified at the June hearing on criminal justice reform legislation. “These horror stories are rare, but they certainly happen,” she said of cases like DiToro’s.
The state’s district attorneys say they target mandatory sentences to repeat major drug offenders and those also committing violent acts. They say a recent review of all those serving state prison sentences on a “governing” drug charge showed 73 percent had violent backgrounds.A 2012 reform reduced the length of many mandatory drug sentences—the charge DiToro was convicted on went from 15 years to 12 1/2 years. Since she had already served 14 years, it meant she was able to get out 11 months early, in August of that year. “14 years, 26 days,” she says of her time in prison time. “I’ll never forget.”
RETURN TO MAIN STORY: “Rethinking tough-on-crime”