Middlesex DA Ryan backs mandatory minimum repeal
Joins Suffolk’s Conley in supporting parts of Senate bill
MIDDLESEX DISTRICT ATTORNEY Marian Ryan said she supports many pieces of the Senate criminal justice bill unveiled last week, including the repeal of some mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.
“I support elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for certain non-violent, low-level drug offenses that do not include distribution of opioids or distribution to minors,” Ryan said in a statement.
The provision of the Senate bill dealing with mandatory minimum sentences has quickly become a flashpoint for debate. Michael O’Keefe, the district attorney for the Cape & Islands, has sharply criticized the measure. “I just think the wrong message is being sent when we’re talking about making it easier for people who deal these deadly substances in our community,” he said.
Sen. William Brownsberger, the bill’s sponsor and cochairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary, said many lower-level dealers who would be affected by repeal of the laws are also drug users and the focus of the criminal justice system in such cases should be on treatment, not incarceration.
Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley said this week that he would support repeal of the school zone mandatory minimum and is open to “rethinking” the mandatory sentence for a second conviction.
“I’m pleased to see that he’s reconsidered his support for minimum mandatory sentences,” said Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state agency that oversees legal representation for indigent defendants. Even when defendants don’t end up convicted on an offense carrying a mandatory sentence, Gioia said, the threat of those charges is used by prosecutors as leverage to get defendants to plead guilty to lesser charges.
Critics have also said mandatory minimum drug sentences have a disproportionate impact on black and Latino defendants.
Plymouth District Attorney Timothy Cruz did not return a message seeking comment on the Senate bill. Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey declined to comment. Cruz and Morrissey joined with O’Keefe and six other DAs in coauthoring a letter to the editor in the Boston Globe two years ago that strongly opposed repeal of any mandatory minimum drug sentences. Ryan and Conley were the only two of the state’s 11 DAs who did not sign the letter.
The views of state’s district attorneys can have a lot of sway on Beacon Hill.
“I think all of the DAs are thoughtful,” said Brownsberger. “I don’t want to be critical of DAs, but I think it tends to happen in this conversation about mandatories — that the DAs sort of shape up as the bad guys.”
Brownsberger said he thinks the DAs “as a group” are uncomfortable going too far with repeal of mandatory sentences “because it does kind of weaken their hand.” He said he’s hopeful that at the end of the Legislature’s deliberations over criminal justice reform, the DAs “will say this is a pretty fair package. It took some tools away from us, and we understand the Legislature’s trying to reduce incarceration, but we have the tools we need to punish the most serious offenders.”