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October 9, 2012

Crime lab case threatens sentence reforms

BOSTON — Drug sentences from across Massachusetts that have recently been cut short because of questions over evidence tested by “rogue chemist” Annie Dookhan and the unfolding state crime lab drama could soon brush up against sentencing reform efforts on tap for the next legislative session.

It’s unclear how the drug lab drama will figure into sentencing reform talks, but one top Patrick administration official attempted last week to draw a bright line between the two topics.

“They’re totally separate situations, and I look forward to continuing the good work that we did on sentencing reform, and I know the Legislature’s committed to that as well,” Secretary of Public Safety and Security Mary Beth Heffernan told the State House News Service.

But even as lawmakers were hammering out an agreement on a sentencing reform bill in July — which included lower mandatory minimums for drug offenses and stricter sentencing for habitual violent offenders – Massachusetts State Police were getting ready to take over the Hinton Lab in Jamaica Plain, as part of streamlining included in the budget signed July 8.

After the Legislature rejected a Gov. Deval Patrick amendment that would have granted judicial discretion in sentencing habitual offenders, Patrick ultimately signed the bill with a vow to return in 2013 for more reforms.

“We must also get serious about reforming mandatory minimum sentences,” the governor had said a few days before signing the bill. “Like I said, the warehousing of nonviolent drug offenders has proven to be a costly failure. It does nothing to improve public safety, and it doesn’t deal with the substance abuse that is the source of the problem. States across the country are moving away from it, and we must, too.”

The crime bill was especially pushed by Cape Ann lawmakers Bruce Tarr, the state Senate Minority Leader from Gloucester, and by Rep. Brad Hill, the Ipswich Republican whose House district includes the town of Manchester.

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