Weld’s views ‘developing’ on criminal justice reform
Ex-gov and current VP candidate casts off famous ‘busting rocks’ line
WHEN HE RAN for governor in Massachusetts 26 years ago, Republican Bill Weld cut a more moderate profile on many social issues than his Democratic opponent, John Silber – a key factor, many believe, in his victory in liberal-leaning Massachusetts. When it came to criminal justice issues, however, there was nothing tempered about the former federal prosecutor’s views.
Indeed, Weld’s tough-on-crime outlook became memorialized in one famous line, delivered in an interview during the campaign with the Boston Globe’s Renee Loth. “I want to reintroduce Massachusetts prisoners to the joys of busting rocks,” Weld said.
The line has become a shorthand reference to the harsh approach to criminal justice issues that dominated that era, a period when cities were being ravaged by the crack cocaine epidemic and gang violence, and government was responding by ratcheting up sanctions, including tough new mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
The huge swing in public attitudes has put presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on the defensive, forced to acknowledge that a sweeping 1994 crime bill signed by her husband while he was president has had unintended consequences that merit revisiting.
But Clinton is not the only national candidate this year whose thinking on criminal justice has been evolving. Weld – who as of 11 days ago became the vice presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party – has joined the reform bandwagon, too.
In a Q&A session earlier this week with CommonWealth editor Bruce Mohl, Weld was asked about his famous rock-busting line – and about the dramatic rethinking of such views now taking place around the country, especially in conservative states.
“I’m developing on that stage as well,” Weld said.
He said the context for his earlier tough-on-crime posture was the seven years he had just spent in the US Justice Department as well state guidelines in Massachusetts that often allowed defendants to go free after serving only a fraction of their original sentence. “There was no truth in advertising at all, so I was way up on my high horse about that,” Weld said.
“But you’re right, I think the United States is undergoing a reexamination of that,” Weld said of the get-tough approach. “I believe you’re right that it was Republican governors in the South not so long ago who began thinking, well, wait a minute, we’re paying $100-plus thousand a year to keep these people incarcerated in our fine jails, and all they did was have a possessory offense of narcotics – they didn’t even sell. That doesn’t sound right to me, said these governors, just as a cost-benefit analysis.”
On a deeper level, he said, the tough sentencing raised questions beyond cost issues about incarcerating people who are primarily driven to criminal behavior because of addiction problems. Weld said he has become involved in efforts to reframe addiction as a “public health emergency,” not a crime problem. He said he spoke at a rally last October in Washington sponsored by the organization Facing Addiction.
In the 1990 governor’s race, Weld’s hardline stands on criminal justice issues drew sharp criticism from Silber. The longtime Boston University president was often painted as the throwback conservative in the race, but that was sometimes more a reflection of his abrasive style than his views, which were much more progressive than Weld’s on some issues, including criminal justice.
Silber, who died in 2012, was a strong proponent of dramatically beefing up education programs in prisons. “What you find in common among most people in prison is they do not have the knowledge, skills, or habits required of those who earn an honest living,” he told the Globe. “To reduce recidivism, one had better introduce into the prison system a major education component.”
As for Weld’s solution, Silber said, “I looked around and tried to check how many jobs are available for rock-busters, and I couldn’t find any.” The one-time philosophy professor, whose provocative statements during the race became known as “Silber shockers,” suggested there was something of a double standard at play in coverage of the contest.
“Now, if John Silber had come up with a piece of vindictive rhetoric like ‘Give ‘em the joys of rock busting,’” he told the Globe, referring to himself in the third person, “that would’ve been a Silber shocker for which the media would blowtorch my rear end all over the state.”At this week’s event, Weld applauded a recent move in Massachusetts to no longer send women committed involuntarily by courts for addiction treatment to Framingham State Prison, but to steer them instead to non-prison treatment settings.
“I’m totally behind that,” said Weld, “and you would not have gotten that out of my mouth in the late ‘80s.”