Sheriff: War on drugs ‘joke’

Tompkins says effort to jail drug users has failed to stem crime

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

SAYING MANY OF THOSE incarcerated in his facilities belong elsewhere, Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins on Tuesday said the War on Drugs was a “joke” and a “disservice to our nation.”

“I think the war on drugs was a flaming, dare I say joke, frankly,” Tompkins said at a criminal justice panel discussion hosted by MassINC and The Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. He said, “By putting all of these folks into jail with the idea that they’re going to get the big kingpins, it’s just done a disservice to our nation.”

For decades law enforcement officials have focused on the illicit drug trade, and there are now five times as many people incarcerated as there were in the 1970s, according to a recent report, which found incarcerating people “had relatively little to do” with the major drop in crime since 1991.

Tompkins comments mirror that of his former boss at the sheriff’s office, Andrea Cabral, who Tompkins replaced when she was named secretary of public safety. In a 2013 CommonWealth story about Annie Dookhan, the former lab tech jailed for filing bogus test results on potentially thousands of samples of drug in criminal cases, Cabral told the magazine much of the blame could be laid on the war on drugs. She said the pressure for the effort forced law enforcement officials at all levels to cut corners and make cases, accepting results from Dookhan without skepticism.

“There’s an inordinate volume of cases because of the focus on criminalizing drugs,” Cabral said at the time. “People are expected to do it well and are expected to do it instantly,” she says of the testing of evidence and pressure to move cases through the system.

Other panelists at the forum on Tuesday — former congressman and prosecutor Bill Delahunt, Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice director Jack McDevitt and Michael Widmer, the former president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation — broadly agreed that too many people are incarcerated.

Former attorney general Frank Bellotti and Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan were unable to make the event, said MassINC President Greg Torres, who said he hoped Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley would be able to make an appearance — though Conley also was unable to make it. Conley has defended laws that demand a minimum sentence for those convicted of a certain crime, saying judges who deliver sentences are disconnected from communities burdened by high crime.

Brennan Center for Justice Senior Counsel Lauren-Brooke Eisen told the crowd in the Gardner Auditorium that the center investigated several theories for the drop in crime from the early 1990s and found the maturing age of the nation’s population, new tacks on policing and less alcohol consumption all played a role.

“In a nutshell, we do not know with precision what caused the crime decline, but we do know that the growth in incarceration played a very limited effect,” Eisen said, crediting the incarceration of 1.1 million more people over the course of roughly two decades for about 5 percent of the reduction in the 1990s and zero percent in the 2000s.

Massachusetts was one of the states that through the 2000s saw a reduction in both incarceration and crime, according to the study. Since 1991, violent crime across the country has fallen by 51 percent and property crime has fallen 43 percent.

The study found the country’s “archipelago” of prisons and jails costs $80 billion annually to operate and people of color are disproportionately incarcerated.

Tompkins, whose facilities handle suspects and offenders from in and around Boston, said many people incarcerated should be in a mental health facility or substance abuse bed.

Tompkins said individuals in his facility have an average fifth or sixth grade math and reading level. Tompkins, who is black, said 65 percent of the population “looks like me,” while 85 percent have some involvement in drugs and 42 percent have some form of mental illness.

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Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

Governmental belt-tightening will force lawmakers to consider alternatives to ballooning incarceration that occurred during the “roaring economy” of the 1990s, Widmer said.

“There’s a new fiscal reality in which we’re going to have to make tough choices,” Widmer said. Widmer said the bipartisan movement calling for reduction in mandatory minimum sentences is “what happens when there’s a failed policy — mass incarceration — that goes on for so long.”