Attacks on DA not helpful to sentencing debate

Mass. Lawyers Weekly letter, April 9, 2015

To the editor:
Having recently retired after 25 years on the District Court bench, I approach the current controversy over minimum mandatory sentences in drug cases with a natural bias against limitation of a judge’s discretion. I can understand, however, why a prosecutor finds them to be useful both to dispose of cases and investigate those further up the drug supply chain.
The state is not “warehousing” hapless drug addicts. Prison sentences on drug charges are directly responsible for less than 20 percent of the prison population. Those are generally of dealers or accompanied by firearms charges, or domestic or other violent offenses, or a history of such offenses, or probation violations for later criminal offenses.
With the exception of Plymouth County, which, I am reliably told, has improved since I sat there, the district attorneys in the nine counties in which I sat were uniformly reasonable about “knocking down” drug charges from those with minimum mandatory sentences.
The issue — whether and to what extent discretion should be confided in persons more or less insulated from public opinion — is one that requires careful discussion and consideration. There is no place in it for ad hominem allegations of racism against one’s policy opponents. In particular, former Judge Nancy Gertner’s attacks in these pages on Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, a tough but intelligent and enlightened prosecutor, are not helpful.
Brian R. Merrick
West Barnstable
The writer is a retired District Court judge.

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