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Drug lab scandal is a critical opportunity to fix the system

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  October 5, 2012 11:17 AM

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Massachusetts prosecutors reportedly need $50 million in tax dollars to relitigate cases involving people wrongfully locked up as a result of the state drug lab scandal--and Suffolk County District Attorney Conley says that 300 to 500 people, including some who are "pretty dangerous," could be released.

Elected officials, voters and everyone else need to stop right now and pay attention.

First, the money.

Honestly, folks, is spending $50 million or more the only--or best--way to fix the drug lab fiasco? Let's not let this crisis go to waste. This is a great opportunity for Massachusetts to put the justice back into our criminal justice system--and save millions of tax dollars to reinvest in education, rather than incarceration.

There's nothing wrong with the $50 million estimate--except that, if we stay the current path, I'm sure that will double or triple, or more. Of course, public defenders will require at least as much to do their job of defending those people. And fairness dictates that they get it.

And after we deal with the 1,100 people currently in jail as a result of convictions tainted by the drug lab's corruption, we'll need to address the injustice done to the remaining estimated 33,000 people--potentially multiples of that (depending on how far the lab scandal stretches)--who have already served sentences based on tainted evidence. This matters because past criminal convictions can keep people and their families out of public housing, out of schools and out of jobs. Never mind that it's tough to lead a crime-free life if you can't support your family otherwise. It also means any future small crime--e.g. stealing a loaf of bread--can result in a draconian sentence.

There's got to be a better way out of the drug lab scandal. And there is. It involves setting priorities to focus our limited resources on present cases that involve violence, threats, or weapons.

To do that, the governor, attorney general and other decision-makers should develop a way to simply dismiss all present cases involving non-violent drug offenses. It's hard to imagine a fair re-trial is even possible for these cases. Remember: the alleged rogue lab worker, Annie Dookhan, reportedly fabricated both the existence and the amount of drugs used as evidence to lock people away. She reportedly always favored the prosecution. In fact, she was the only lab employee who fielded calls on her cell phone from prosecutors and police officers.

Those cases, and probably many others--including any case in which Dookhan had contact with the prosecutors or police--should simply be dumped.

Doing so also would let prosecutors--and defense attorneys--focus on creating fair trials for people who are locked up on tainted evidence but whose underlying conviction included actual violence or threats to our community. Those people deserve individualized justice and hearings; that should and will require additional public funds.

But for the other cases--and for non-violent drug cases in general--Massachusetts should stop the waste of time, money and human lives forevermore. Let's not throw scarce tax dollars pursuing a failed "war on drugs" that fills our prisons, empties our public coffers, fails to keep us safe and--as we now know--clogs and thus undermines the effectiveness of our efforts. When the Massachusetts legislature gets back in January, the first order of business should be to restore judicial oversight of drug sentencing by eliminating automatic "mandatory minimum" sentences for drugs.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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