BOSTON — In the latest chapter in the state’s nearly decade-old drug lab crisis, a Boston judge on Wednesday was asked to approve a taxpayer-funded settlement that could reach $14 million to be paid to more than 30,000 wrongfully convicted drug defendants.
The proposed settlement, which is part of a class-action suit, also includes additional payments of about $1.4 million in attorneys’ fees for plaintiffs’ lawyers and costs associated with processing the payments, including hiring a settlement administrator, sending a mass notification to the drug defendants and creating a website and call center, the settlement filing states.
More than 1,200 New Bedford cases, and nearly 3,700 for all of Bristol County, could result in refunds as part of the class action suit, filed in 2019.
The millions owed to drug defendants stem from fines and fees they paid for probation, parole, drug analysis, a return of their driver’s license, and other mandated services during their now-vacated cases.
The proposed settlement, which has taken years to craft, aims to redress some of the harm caused to individuals ensnared in the largest crime lab scandal in U.S. history and appears to have no model in the nation’s civil rights annals.
“There was no other litigation that offered us much in the way of guidance in terms of how to structure the settlement, how to implement it and how to account for the various issues that arose during this lengthy litigation,” said attorney Luke Ryan, one of three lawyers representing the wrongfully convicted defendants.
Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, called the proposed settlement an “extraordinary achievement” and a historic first step in potentially recasting the state’s criminal justice fines and fees structure, which he likened to a “tax on poor people.”
Most of the vacated drug lab cases were for possession and prosecuted in district court, he said.
“We are not talking about kingpins. We are talking about people who could little afford the hundreds of dollars” the state was extracting from them in fines and fees, Segal said.
The proposed settlement “is a reminder that we ought to be building a justice system that delivers justice to, rather than extracts money from, the most vulnerable people,” Segal said.
A spokesperson with Attorney General Maura Healey’s office said by email that while an exact figure for the total settlement cost cannot be calculated at this time, it will be close to $14 million.
Refund amounts will be calculated based on available records through the Trial Court, Massachusetts State Police, Parole Board, and the Registry of Motor Vehicles. All wrongfully convicted defendants in the suit will receive a minimum of $150, unless they already sought a refund outside of the class-action suit.
The proposed deal has been delayed for years in part due to the Trial Court’s failure to track fines and fees paid by defendants in cases dating back to the early 2000s.
Attorneys Ryan and Daniel Marx in a 2018 brief filed for a separate case said state officials “chronically failed to maintain accurate accounts of what was collected” and that the “lack of reliable, accessible, and comprehensive records creates difficult challenges” that both parties were working to resolve.
If approved by a judge, the drug defendants would be reimbursed in 10 categories of payments: probation and victim witness fees, court costs, fines and sur-fines, drug analysis fees, GPS monitoring costs, restitution, DNA collection parole, supervision and driver’s license reinstatement fees, the filing states.
The attorney general’s office hired a consultant, Analysis Group Inc., in 2019 to reconstruct payments owed to the drug defendants.
Taxpayers have underwritten at least $300,000 in additional drug lab cleanup costs for the consultant to identify the wrongfully convicted defendants and then reconstruct amounts they paid to the state as part of their prosecutions, records obtained from the attorney general’s office show.
“The compilation of this master payments dataset was a critical step in resolving the claims of the class and finalizing an administrative scheme for providing global relief,” read an April status report for the case.
The drug lab crisis erupted into public view in September 2012 with the arrest of disgraced chemist Annie Dookhan.
It has to date cost taxpayers at least $30 million to begin to resolve the harm caused by rampant misconduct at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Jamaica Plain and the state lab in Amherst.
The state Supreme Judicial Court has dismissed over 60,000 drug convictions because of the misconduct due to widespread drug tampering by Dookhan and drug theft at the Amherst lab by former chemist Sonja Farak.
Both women served fewer than five years behind bars after pleading guilty to criminal charges related to their work at the labs.
If the proposed settlement agreement is approved, the attorney general’s office will contact defendants through mail, social media and email.
The attorney general’s office and the defense attorneys have also agreed that the state will pay $10,000 “service awards” to the original four drug defendants who brought the suit for their time and service, an amount which will be added to the final settlement award each receives.
The attorney general’s office will also establish a website and call center to process inquiries about reimbursement, and hire a settlement administrator to process payments and file regular reports with the parties on the status of reimbursements, the filing states.
The court will schedule a hearing at a later date and make a final determination as to the fairness of the proposed settlement, said a spokesperson from Healey’s office. If the settlement is approved, the refund amounts will be placed into an account and a third-party administrator will begin issuing refund checks to the wrongfully convicted defendants.
Under the terms of the proposed settlement, members of the class action suit will also be allowed to appeal their refund amount.
Any uncashed checks after one year will be distributed to three Massachusetts organizations: Community Legal Aid, Inc., the Transformational Prison Project and the Tufts Education Reentry Network program.
“Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak’s crimes undermined the integrity of our justice system and impacted thousands of lives,” Healey said in a statement. “From the start, we have recognized that defendants with vacated convictions should be refunded and are pleased to have engaged in a collaborative effort to reach a fair and efficient resolution for all involved.”
Anastasia E. Lennon is a New Bedford Light staff reporter. Maggie Mulvihill is an associate professor of the practice in computational journalism at Boston University. Claudia Chiappa is a recent graduate of Boston University’s graduate journalism program. She contributed research and reporting to this story as part of The Light’s ongoing collaboration with Professor Maggie Mulvihill’s data journalism course.
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