Tag Archives: drug lab

Expanding the Forensic Sciences Advisory Board is a Step in the Right Direction

The breadth and depth of the fallout from the state drug lab crisis won’t be known for years. By most accounts this is the biggest crisis our justice system has ever faced. The review process, expeditiously put in place by Governor Patrick, has been encouraging. So far there’s been transparency and cooperation as stakeholders work towards ensuring that justice is done in all cases.  Investigations into the what, why, how, and when are ongoing.  Special court sessions are underway, and Governor Patrick plans to file a supplemental budget request with the Legislature next week for funding to cover the expenses associated with the drug lab crisis.

It’s impossible to conjecture what the price tag is going to be for sifting through years of drug cases, hearing them in court and then putting appropriate reentry programs in place to ensure public safety. Mayor Menino requested $15 million from the Patrick administration to cover the potential flood of inmates who may be released – and that’s just for the City of Boston.

House Judiciary Chairman O’Flaherty has said that as a result of the drug lab crisis, new legislation may have to be filed to prevent the crisis from being repeated. A good place to start is S 1204, An Act Relative to the Forensic Sciences Advisory Board – a companion to the BBA’s DNA access bill passed earlier this.  The BBA filed this companion bill in 2011 and we plan to re-file an updated version of it next session.

This legislation would expand the composition of the Massachusetts Forensic Science Advisory Board (FSAB) to include members of the defense bar and scientists. You read that correctly – the Forensic Sciences Advisory Board does not have any forensic scientists. The current membership of the FSAB, as determined by Chapter 6 Sec. 184A, really only reflects one side of the criminal law spectrum. Members include the Undersecretary of Forensic Sciences and Technology, the Attorney General, the State Police Colonel, the President of the MA Chiefs of Police Association, the President of the MA Urban Chiefs Association, the President of the MA District Attorney’s Association (MDAA), a district attorney designated by MDAA and the Commissioner of Public Health or their designees.

Taking a giant step back from what actually happened at the state drug lab, it’s unbelievable how much havoc a single person can wreak on our system of justice.  Surely, the criminality of this one person is egregious, but this may actually point to a more fundamental problem in the entire justice system – inadequate resources.  Decades of underfunding our courts, district attorneys’ offices, crime labs, public defense counsel offices and civil legal service organizations has contributed to an overburdened system where everyone is struggling to find efficiencies, do more with less and provide every single person equal access to justice. One of the most unsettling results of the drug lab crisis is that it exposes  a broader potential flaw – that there may be other areas in our justice system that are just as vulnerable due to inadequate resources.

Regardless of the financial cost or reform measures that are put into place, the damage has already been done to the integrity of Massachusetts’ justice system. The premise of that system – that everyone has equal access to justice and that justice is carried out in a fair and timely manner – has been shaken. As the next few weeks and months unfold and we learn more about what happened at the state crime lab, we need to use this crisis as an opportunity for change.

– Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association
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Drug Lab Crisis Points to Larger Issues in the Criminal Justice System

We are still just scratching the surface from the fallout resulting from the mishandling of evidence in alleged drug cases at the crime lab in Jamaica Plain. At the very least, the crisis we’re now facing underscores the importance of strict protocols and controls in every aspect of our criminal justice system.

The massive effort to right the wrongs caused by what happened at the state drug lab is already underway.  To his credit, Governor Patrick swiftly put together a central office to oversee the review of criminal cases potentially jeopardized by the mishandling of evidence.  The office, headed by David Meier, worked throughout the weekend to identify cases where Annie Dookhan, the state chemist in question, performed primary or secondary tests.  By Monday the estimate was that more than 1,100 individuals currently serving sentences in state or county houses of correction were affected.  This number does not include individuals in federal custody, those awaiting trial, those on probation or parole, those who were previously convicted and served time, or those otherwise punished.

In the last few days, a handful of defendants has already been released from prison or had their sentences suspended.  It’s expected that in the coming weeks there will be an onslaught of people who will be released from jail or face significantly lesser charges.

Calls are coming into the BBA’s Lawyer Referral Service on behalf of people imprisoned in drug cases.  The Committee for Public Counsel Services has created a specific office to deal with the influx of cases.  More information from CPCS can be obtained by calling their main number, (617) 482-6212.

What’s happening in Massachusetts is unprecedented because of the magnitude of the number of cases potentially impacted.  However, this isn’t the first time that state drug or crime labs have had to be shut done because of mishandling of evidence.  In 2008, the Michigan State Police shut down the Detroit Police crime laboratory because of a history of mishandling evidence.  In 2009, a San Francisco lab technician, who is currently facing federal charges, was accused of stealing cocaine from the facility and a total of 1,400 cases were reviewed.  More recently in Nassau County, New York, the state crime lab acknowledged mismatching reports on blood-alcohol tests, as well as possible contamination of drug evidence.  The local district attorney worked with the Nassau County Bar Association to help inform inmates whether their cases were impacted.  As many as 9,000 drug cases were reviewed.

It’s way too soon to assess what the impact will be on our justice system. But the scandal spotlights another important BBA public policy issue – the need to abolish mandatory minimum sentences.  Currently, Massachusetts has a one-size-fits-all system of sentencing for drug crimes. Sentences are often disproportionate to the seriousness of the crime or the risk to the public.

With few exceptions, Massachusetts’ drug-sentencing laws are based on the weight of drugs involved, rather than what a defendant actually did.

This crisis is putting our criminal justice system to the test.  While David Meier’s central office continues to work around the clock to identify those affected by what happened, it will be the justice system that determines whether or not we get it right.

-Kathleen Joyce
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association
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