By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON -- Expressing continued concern with mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, Gov. Deval Patrick said he would be "very interested" in commuting the sentences of a segment of the inmate population if it would relieve overcrowding in prisons.
"I have a lot of concerns about the impact on our criminal justice system, and on the prisons in particular, of non-violent drug offenders and the mandatory minimum around that. We've moved some legislation, tried to make some changes there, and if there was a way to relieve the crowding in the prisons by commuting a class of those cases, I'd be very interested in doing it," Patrick said outside the WGBH studios in Brighton following his monthly radio appearance Friday, according to a recording.
President Barack Obama last week commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates who had been convicted of cocaine offenses when there was more disparity in the punishment for powder versus crack cocaine. Among those who received a commutation was Patrick's cousin, Reynolds Allen Wintersmith, Jr., whom Patrick has said was the son of his uncle, a heroin addict.
"I don't know this cousin, at least not well," Patrick said in a televised interview with reporters Friday. Patrick also said he would likely meet Wintersmith, who is due for release in April. He said, "I'd like to. I'd probably, at some point I will."
A former Justice Department civil rights chief who later worked for Coca Cola and Texaco, Patrick has not commuted nor pardoned any offenders in his seven years in office.
The last commutation in Massachusetts was granted to Joseph Salvati, at the recommendation of Gov. Bill Weld. In February 1997, the eight-member Governor's Council voted unanimously to commute the first-degree-murder life sentence of Salvati, whose conviction was later overturned when a judge concluded the FBI hid exculpatory evidence.
After his sentence was commuted and he was freed, Salvati visited the council to thank them for his "freedom."
"I served 30 years for a crime I didn't commit. I still believe our justice system is the best in the world, although sometimes it fails. I was a victim of the war against crime," Salvati said at the time, according to archived News Service coverage.
According to the governor's office, Acting Gov. Jane Swift pardoned seven people in 2002. A pardon expunges a conviction while a commutation shortens a sentence. Swift pardoned John Abusheery on the charge of distributing a Class D substance; Daniel Carney on an insurance violation and other charges; Carolyn Bissonnette on larceny; Peter Dugan on operating to endanger; John Frigon on possession of Class C and D substances; Ojingwa Leclair on a range of charges including forgery, assault and battery and possession of a Class B substance; and Robert Leitch for a range of charges including shoplifting, operating to endanger and minor transporting alcohol.
Patrick was buffeted during his 2006 campaign over his advocacy to the Parole Board on behalf of convicted rapist Benjamin LaGuer and revamped the board after the Dec. 26, 2010 murder of Woburn police officer John "Jack" Maguire by parolee Dominic Cinelli.
On Friday, Patrick also noted clemency must be confirmed by the Governor's Council, an eight-member elected body that confirms judicial appointments as well.
Rep. Christopher Markey, a Dartmouth Democrat and former prosecutor, said offenders should be dealt with individually, rather than through an across-the-board commutation.
"We don't want every individual treated the same," Markey told the News Service, noting Patrick's criticism of mandatory-minimum sentencing laws. Markey said he can't assess whether Patrick has been right not to grant any appeals for clemency.
"I don't have the information that he has," Markey said. He said, "I think at the end of the day, every case needs to be looked at individually."
Senate Majority Leader Stan Rosenberg declined to comment on the governor's potential use of his commutation powers until he does some more "homework" on the subject, and said sentencing laws will remain in the Legislature's focus.
"The Senate President and the Speaker have pledged to return to the subject of mandatory minimum sentencing early in the next session. I take them at their word," Patrick said before signing a sentencing bill in 2012. The bill reduced mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses while automatically granting the maximum sentence to certain habitual offenders.
"We are working on a number of strategies to try to reduce incarceration and re-incarceration, and so I think over the next couple of years there's going to be a lot of ideas floated," Rosenberg told the News Service.
The prison system is almost uniformly crowded beyond the design capacity of the facilities. The two maximum security prisons are overcrowded with an average occupancy rate of 121 percent, as of Dec. 16, according to the Department of Correction. The 12 medium security prisons are an average 145 percent occupied, well above the design capacity, with only two - the medium security portion of Cedar Junction in Walpole and the Shattuck Hospital Correctional Unit in Jamaica Plain - under capacity. Houses of correction and jails are occupied at an average of 128 percent of capacity, with Essex County experiencing the greatest overcrowding.
Rosenberg said the Special Commission to Study the Criminal Justice System has worked on the issue, and he said, "I know there are some people who would like to see another sentencing commission convened to review the reports of the previous sentencing commissions and try to move something forward."
Rosenberg has said he has the votes to become the next president of the Senate once Senate President Therese Murray's tenure ends. Murray has said she will decide whether to run for re-election by April. Her time presiding over the Senate must end in March 2015 because of term limits.
"It's a sensitive subject," said Rosenberg, noting a number of states, including Texas have reviewed their sentencing laws "finding that we've sort of gone so far in one direction that we're just loading the prisons up with people who don't belong there."