After years of negotiations, the state attorney general’s office, Gov. Charlie Baker, nearly a dozen state and county officials and defense attorneys have until Tuesday to strike a deal on some $10 million in payments to tens of thousands of wrongly convicted drug defendants whose cases were dismissed in 2017 and 2018 after the state’s drug lab scandals, records show.
The millions owed to defendants, which the state has agreed to pay, stem from fines and fees they paid during their now-vacated cases for probation, parole, drug analysis, a return of their driver’s license, and other mandated services.
More than 1,200 New Bedford cases, and nearly 3,700 for all of Bristol County, could result in refunds as part of a class action suit filed in 2019 after the Supreme Judicial Court had vacated many convictions.
It has taken more than two years for officials to determine how much each individual is owed due to the Massachusetts court system’s failure to properly account for payments made by defendants, whose arrests in some cases stretch back at least 20 years, records show.
A Massachusetts judge in a December ruling set the Tuesday deadline for the parties to move to approve a settlement agreement for reimbursing the defendants or request a hearing.
In a 2018 amicus brief filed in a separate state case by defendants seeking reimbursements for fines and fees paid, defense lawyers Luke Ryan, Daniel N. Marx and William W. Fick argued that “systemic management and accounting problems” within the Trial Court prevented the parties from determining what individual drug defendants paid to the state when they were prosecuted.
“State officials aggressively collected” the payments, “but due to mismanagement and fraud, they failed to accurately account for the many millions that they collected,” attorneys Ryan, Marx and Fick stated.
“Before the drug lab scandals, the Trial Court’s struggles to manage money paid by criminal defendants were largely products of archaic, cash-based accounting systems,” they said.
State officials, led by Assistant Attorney General Katherine B. Dirks, acknowledged that determining amounts owed has been challenging, according to a 2019 court filing.
The process to determine the amount of these payments has been “difficult and time-consuming,” stated the 2019 status report filed with the SJC.
The Light requested an interview on Thursday with Attorney General Maura Healey or Dirks to discuss why the case, which has been pending since 2019, has not yet been resolved.
“We don’t have additional comment to provide on the record at this time given the ongoing litigation and active settlement negotiations,” said Thomas Dalton, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office, by email.
Asked if the Attorney General’s office expects to reach a proposed settlement agreement by Tuesday, Dalton said that as agreed with the plaintiffs, they will either file the proposed settlement or a further status report with the court.
“We’re certainly working diligently and collaboratively with the plaintiffs to reach a resolution as soon as possible,” Dalton said.
The Light also requested an explanation from John A. Bello, who was appointed administrator for the Trial Court in 2021, on the court’s tracking of payments from defendants, and how it is affecting pending litigation.
Erika Gully-Santiago, a court spokesperson, said by email that the Trial Court declines to comment on this pending litigation.
In a joint status report filed last month on the settlement negotiations, Dirks and the plaintiffs’ attorneys said the parties “have continued to work productively” to finalize a mass settlement agreement.
The state hired a consultant, Analysis Group Inc., to determine the payment amounts owed to the wrongfully convicted drug defendants. Dirks and the plaintiffs’ attorneys said the group “has developed an aggregated dataset of payments that can be used to identify potential recovery.”
Based on the payment records and “information regarding the quality and completeness of those records, the parties have reached an agreement in principle on the most significant material terms of a potential settlement,” they wrote.
Taxpayers continue to cover a rising bill for the extensive harm caused by the scandal, considered the biggest crime lab crisis in U.S. history.
Disgraced chemists Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak, who collectively spent fewer than five years behind bars, were responsible for pervasive drug tampering and theft, respectively, with evidence at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Jamaica Plain and the state lab in Amherst.
Tens of thousands of convictions, which were based on their tainted analyses, were subsequently vacated by the SJC, and now the wrongfully convicted are owed fees they paid as part of their drug cases.
ON NETFLIX: Watch the four-part documentary series “How to Fix a Drug Scandal” for more information on the Massachusetts drug lab scandal.
If the mass settlement agreement is approved by a judge, the costs to date to redress that harm would top $40 million, according to public records and state officials.
The millions in fines and fees paid by defendants to the state annually was the subject of a proposal in the Baker administration’s most recent $48.5 billion budget sent to the Legislature last month. Baker argued those funds do not enhance public safety and stymie a released criminal’s ability to rebuild his or her life.
Criminal debt collection has been a controversial topic in other states, in part because of failures to track payments.
“I’ve seen courts where their record-keeping is on paper, on an Excel spreadsheet, on a paper in boxes in somebody’s office,” said Priya Sarathy Jones, national policy and campaigns director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a non-profit seeking reforms in criminal debt collection. “Depending on the court, depending on the place, it is very, very archaic.”
The Fines and Fees Justice Center released a 2020 report that found some states do not have the means to determine how much money the state owes to wrongly convicted felons.
Massachusetts was among 25 states that did not provide the data on criminal defendant debt collection, the report states.
A 2020 study published in the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Law’s Criminal Justice Law Review Journal found that only two of the eight studied states (which did not include Massachusetts) could provide data sets detailing exact dollar amounts that individuals owed for legal fees.
However, none of the states studied had a central state repository where people could find how much money they owed, and often, collection systems varied even within the states. The study highlighted a lack of transparency in legal and financial obligations and the need for an improved data collection system.
Individuals are often forced to go on a “scavenger hunt,” looking for information themselves when dealing with court debt, Jones said
“It’s a huge problem, and it’s continuously being shifted to individuals to have to carry that burden, and not the government that has initiated the debt,” she said, also noting that when courts come forward with some numbers, there is no proof that the number is accurate.
“How do you know that they didn’t leave something out, or they missed something?” Jones said. “Because there’s no real check on the system either. There’s no way to verify that their numbers are right.”
According to Jones, courts have little incentive to keep well-managed records of the fines and fees they collect because those payments are a significant source of revenue and a “tool to fill budget gaps.”
Anastasia Lennon is a New Bedford Light staff reporter. Amanda Cappelli and Claudia Chiappa are Boston University students who contributed research and reporting to this story as part of The Light’s ongoing collaboration with Professor Maggie Mulvihill’s data journalism course.
Email Anastasia Lennon at email@example.com.
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