After tens of thousands of wrongfully convicted drug defendants in Massachusetts have waited more than two years for a collective refund of $10 million or more in fines and fees they paid to the state, lawyers on both sides of their class action lawsuit requested another month to hash out details of the massive settlement.
The Light reported last week that a Massachusetts judge set Feb. 15 as the deadline for the attorney general’s office, lawyers and a slew of state and county officials to craft a deal that would refund the individuals for payments they made as part of their now-vacated drug cases.
In a filing in Suffolk Superior Court on Tuesday, the lawyers, led by Assistant Attorney General Katherine B. Dirks, requested until March 15 to finalize the remaining details on the deal that will add to the $30 million taxpayers have shelled out to clean up the drug lab crisis to date.
While the parties have reached an agreement in principle, Tuesday’s filing disclosed some of the remaining sticking points: how to notify the defendants, some of whom were arrested more than 20 years ago or have since died; how the settlement will be administered; and what to do if a defendant disputes the refund amount.
In response to a request for comment on the delay in reaching the proposed settlement, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office said by email that it is an ongoing matter and that they are working cooperatively with the other parties to reach the proposed settlement agreement soon.
State officials have agreed as many as 40,000 defendants are entitled to be reimbursed after their convictions were vacated, the bulk in 2017 and 2018, by the Supreme Judicial Court due to rampant misconduct at two state labs that tested evidence for their cases.
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, records show.
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.
Now the wrongfully convicted are owed fees they paid as part of their drug cases. During criminal cases, defendants pay fines and fees to the state for mandated services including probation, parole, drug analysis, and a return of their driver’s license. Some are one-time fees, while others are monthly payments.
The class action suit was filed in 2019, but due to the Trial Court’s failure for years to track the fees paid by defendants — frequently in cash — the state has been unable to determine how much everyone is owed, according to state court records.
State officials “chronically failed to maintain accurate accounts of what was collected, and the lack of reliable, accessible, and comprehensive records creates difficult challenges,” wrote defense attorneys Luke Ryan, Daniel N. Marx and William W. Fick, in an amicus brief filed in 2018 in another state drug lab case.
The state hired Analysis Group Inc. to help it determine the amounts owed to each defendant. Analysis Group has since developed a dataset of payments, which the parties have used to negotiate the long-awaited refund, records show.
“It doesn’t provide a lot of confidence after three years that they need more time,” said Priya Sarathy Jones, national policy and campaigns director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a nonprofit organization seeking reforms of the use of fines and fees in the justice system.
While there are rarely situations where courts have to refund people, Jones said, this case shows lack of transparency within the system.
“The entire system is inefficient and counterproductive and we don’t have a real understanding of how it works,” Jones said. “This is an example of that.”
Anastasia E. Lennon is a New Bedford Light staff reporter. Claudia Chiappa is a Boston University student who contributed reporting to this story as part of The Light’s ongoing collaboration with Professor Maggie Mulvihill’s data journalism course. Email Anastasia E. Lennon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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