JUSTICE BILL AUTHOR BACKS GONZALEZ AFTER SETTI WARREN'S VETO PROMISE
By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, APRIL 11, 2018....Democrat Setti Warren said last week that he was taking a principled stand against mandatory minimum sentences when he said he would veto a criminal justice reform bill backed unanimously by legislative Democrats, but that stand appears to be alienating the gubernatorial hopeful from some leaders in his own party.
"I thought that was an uninformed statement," Sen. William Brownsberger told the News Service on Tuesday about Warren's position.
As Gov. Charlie Baker weighs whether to sign the sweeping criminal justice reform package now on his desk, Warren's position has not only shed some light on how the former Newton mayor might govern, but also exposed one of the first real pressure points in the three-way Democratic primary for governor.
Warren's primary opponents – former state budget chief Jay Gonzalez and environmentalist Robert Massie – both say they would sign the bill, even though they share Warren's opposition to mandatory minimum sentences.
And the two lead negotiators of the compromise bill, which has become one of the signature achievements for Democrats this legislative session, said Warren's position gave them pause.
"This bill repeals a number of mandatory minimums as well as doing a whole lot of other good, so you got to look at the bigger picture," Brownsberger said. He added, "Following that statement, I endorsed Jay Gonzalez."
Warren said last Wednesday that despite agreeing with 99 percent of the bill's objectives, if he were governor he would veto the legislation because it added a new three-and-a-half year minimum sentence for someone convicted of trafficking the deadly synthetic opioids fentanyl and carfentanil.
He also said that the new minimum sentence was included in the final bill "seemingly at Baker's insistence."
Warren and his campaign were clear after followup questioning that he would not return the bill to the Legislature with an amendment to strike the new mandatory minimum, even though that would be an option for a governor. A veto can be overriden by the Legislature with a two-thirds vote in each branch.
Rep. Claire Cronin, the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee with Brownsberger who also negotiated the final bill, said she agreed with Brownsberger's assessment of Warren's take on the bill.
"I'm not sure he understands the process, that the governor can actually send the bill back with an amendment, and that would be concerning to me," Cronin said of Warren.
Brownsberger also flatly denied that Baker played any role in pressuring the conference committee to include the new mandatory minimum fentanyl trafficking sentence, and said the governor was one of many voices in the process who advocated for tough fentanyl penalities.
"That came from a lot of directions," Brownsberger said.
Warren has dug in on his veto position in gubernatorial forums since he issued his statement, according to some who have attended, and the topic has become a major point of debate for the three men in the field.
Gonzalez told the News Service he would sign the legislation, even though he has proposed eliminating all mandatory minimums, and then go to work to try to build upon the positive elements of the bill. He highlighted an expansion of court diversion programs and bail reforms that cut down on people being jailed because they can't afford to pay a court fine.
"Obviously, I disagree with Setti on his approach to this," Gonzalez said. "If that is Setti's sole criteria, his objection to mandatory minimum sentences, vetoing the bill would have the opposite effect because there are more mandatories removed than added. So I don't agree with the premise of his objection."
In addition to the new minimum sentence for fentanyl trafficking, the bill also does away with several mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses, including first and second offenses for cocaine possession.
Gonzalez also said he wouldn't try to amend the bill.
"I wouldn't want to put the entire piece of legislation at risk by sending it back and asking for an amendment," he said.
Warren posted a video to his Facebook page last week of him explaining his decision to a group of students, and acknowledged that many legislators were "not happy with yours truly" and had called him to make that point clear.
But in a statement to the News Service on Tuesday, Warren said that had not dissuaded him from his position, nor did he need to be schooled on what his options would be should he become governor.
"I'm thankful for the hard work that went into putting this bill together and I acknowledge there are many things great things in it," Warren said. "I appreciate the lesson on legislative procedure, but I don't need anyone to explain to me the process by which mandatory minimum sentences have destroyed communities of color."
Warren continued, "As people are trying to wrap their heads around this bill, I want them to understand where I stand. When I'm governor, we'll work to eliminate all mandatory minimum sentence for non-violent drugs crimes, and I will not sign any bill that implements a new mandatory minimum law."
Massie, in a statement, said vetoing the bill would be a "well-intentioned mistake."
"Instead of getting rid of everything good about this bill by vetoing it, the governor should sign the bill, immediately introduce legislation to end minimum mandatory sentences for non-violent offenses, and work with the legislature to pass it," Massie said.
Serving the working press since 1894