Prosecutors are dismissing nearly 24,000 tainted drug convictions, but do their actions go far enough?
This week, prosecutors are dismissing more than 95 percent of the 24,000 drug convictions tied to Annie Dookhan, the disgraced chemist who worked at the now-closed Hinton crime lab in Jamaica Plain from 2003 to 2012, where she fabricated lab test results.
After Dookhan’s misconduct was uncovered in 2011 and 2012, prosecutors fought for years to preserve the convictions obtained with evidence tainted by her actions. But the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in January that prosecutors must dismiss the bulk of the cases by April 18.
Meanwhile, the state is still dealing with a second drug lab scandal. Sonja Farak, a chemist who worked at a crime lab in Amherst, stole drugs from work and was high on the job nearly every day for eight years. It’s not yet clear what will happen to defendants whose cases were tainted by Farak’s misconduct.
Mallory Hanora, an activist with the No Drug Arrests Collective, says that simply dismissing the convictions doesn’t go far enough. She believes victims of the two drug lab scandals should be given financial compensation for the hardships they were subjected to.
“In addition to the trauma and suffering people experience in jail and prison, having a drug conviction on your CORI can make it difficult or impossible to get housing and work, so these convictions continue to cause people hardship even now,” Hanora says. “People should also be paid reparations because what happened to them was wrong, and their suffering is a direct result of the state’s misconduct.”
Hanora points out that the state was able to find enough money to prosecute and incarcerate the drug lab scandal victims, not to mention defend the tainted convictions in court for years. “I’m sure we can find the money somewhere to compensate people for the utter injustice they endured,” she says, adding that perhaps the money could be taken out the district attorneys’ budgets.
Jake Wark, the spokesman for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, points out that there’s a state law which allows the wrongfully convicted to seek compensation from the state, but he declined to comment on the idea of giving reparations to every person affected by the drug lab scandals.
The 2004 law to which Wark refers allows the wrongfully convicted to seek up to $500,000 from the state, but there’s no telling how many of the people affected by the drug lab scandals are eligible. According to Amol Sinha, the state policy advocate for the New York-based Innocence Project, there are a number of barriers the wrongfully convicted must overcome to be given compensation.
To receive compensation, you must have been convicted of a felony, sentenced to at least one year in jail, and made to serve at least part of your sentence. You also cannot have pleaded guilty to the crime and must show by clear and convincing evidence that you are innocent.
“It is a fairly arduous process because the clear and convincing standard is a very high standard to meet, and it is somewhat limiting because it narrows the scope of people to those who did not plead guilty. The vast majority of people in the criminal justice system plead guilty to crimes or take a plea deal of some sort,” Sinha says.
“I think the guilty plea issue is a very pressing one,” Sinha adds. “The Innocence Project has tracked our DNA-based exonerations over the years, and we have 349 exonerations in that dataset, and over 10 percent of … those wrongful convictions were based on plea deals … There is concrete evidence that innocent people plead guilty to crimes they did not commit.”
Sinha says the clear and convincing standard is also problematic. “I think the reason the standard is so high is because, understandably, lawmakers want to ensure that guilty people can’t receive compensation, but the unintended consequence of that is that actually-innocent people may be prevented [from receiving compensation],” Sinha says.
Sinha says it’s likely that some individuals whose cases were impacted by the drug lab scandals are actually innocent. He points to Harris County, Texas, where drug tests used by police in the field were falsely identifying legal items like soap and cat litter as illegal drugs. The revelation that the drug tests were faulty led to more than 100 exonerations.
Among other forms of misconduct, Dookhan admitted to deliberately contaminating samples to turn negative results into positive ones on a few occasions, although it’s not clear how many times she did so.
For NDAC, Hanora’s group, sorting out the drug lab scandals and making the victims whole is just the beginning. NDAC is also seeking an end to all drug arrests in the city of Boston, which Hanora says only exacerbate the problem of drug abuse.
“It’s a cliche in Massachusetts that we can’t prosecute our way out of the problem of drug addiction, but our district attorneys keep right on doing it like they have for decades,” Hanora says. “Housing, healing, and treatment are alternatives to arrests and incarceration. There’s a shared understanding we need to destigmatize addiction, and we can’t do that as long as police are involved in the equation. Arrests and incarceration put people and their families into crisis.”
“In lieu of police, I would support creating a community response team that doesn’t have weapons or arrest power but can come when people call them to help prevent overdose, assist in situations when people are in crisis, and hopefully connect people with whatever resources they need,” she says.
She also says that investment in treatment programs and harm reduction strategies like needle exchanges and supervised injection facilities is needed to combat drug addiction. Says Hanora: “People also desperately need places to live. There may be some detox beds available, but after that people don’t have anywhere to go. Drug users must be able to get into transitional then permanent housing.”
She points out that Boston is recruiting 20 additional police cadets in fiscal year 2018 while simultaneously shutting down two transitional housing programs for addicts.
“We literally cannot afford the resources communities need and deserve if we continue to spend this much on policing, prosecution, and prisons,” Hanora concludes.
Jake Wark from the Suffolk County DA’s office agrees that treatment needs to be part of the equation, but says that drug prosecutions must continue: “At a time when three times more people [in Massachusetts] are killed by opiate overdoses than all handguns and all car crashes combined, there has to be room for criminal prosecution for drug distribution that kills people.”
Wark adds: “The criminal justice system is the only lever that can be used to mandate treatment for a person who otherwise would not avail himself of [it].”
Ultimately, Hanora believes change will take place at the ballot box. “One of the reasons people are most disgusted by [Donald] Trump is his appointment of Jeff Sessions as attorney general,” she says, alluding to the AG’s hard-line stance on drug enforcement. “Meanwhile, many of our Massachusetts DAs aren’t far away from Sessions when it comes to drug policy. District attorneys are elected officials. DAs who are defending these tainted convictions should be run out of office … Vote out your local Jeff Sessions.”
This article was written in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.