I commend Councilor Rita Mercier on her remarks this evening regarding crime in Lowell. My notes from the entire meeting are available online but I want to single out Rita’s comments, partly because she and I haven’t shared a lot of common ground on issues, but mostly because she’s right.
Here are the main points she made:
People who are addicted to drugs don’t belong in jail; they belong in treatment centers;
There should be more treatment centers;
There should be more and better-paying jobs;
Many children in our city are on their own and receive no love or respect at home so they seek it out in gangs or through the use of drugs;
One of the reasons children lack support at home is because so many parents have to work two jobs to make ends meet, something caused by an overall lack of good paying jobs;
Neither the police nor the council can solve this problem alone; it takes everyone in the city working together.
She said some other things but the above is the gist of it.
Over the past few months as the temperature of the rhetoric has risen on the floor of the city council, I’ve responded on this site to assertions that the problem is lenient judges who aren’t enforcing the law. From 1986 to 1994, I did mostly criminal defense work in the Lowell District Court and Middlesex Superior Court and I never encountered such leniency. If a crime has a mandatory minimum sentence like for illegal gun possession, you get sentenced if you’re convicted. Period. The only discretion the judge has is to give you more than the minimum. The District Attorney has the power to reduce the charge to a lesser offense but as anyone who was paying attention to our recent state primary election knows, District Attorney’s are elected officials so they’ve never been generous in dispensing get out of jail free cards to accused criminals. And if the defendant is found not guilty, he’s not supposed to go to jail. Can we agree on that, at least?
My time as a defense attorney also coincided with an escalation in our “war on drugs.” Remember when Bill Weld got elected governor back in 1990 on a tough on crime platform in which he famously said he wanted to introduce criminals to “the joys of making little rocks out of big rocks.” Not wanting to be left behind in the who can be tougher on drugs race, the state legislature instituted mandatory minimum sentences for repeat drug distributors. Fantastic. Lock up all the cartel traffickers. But that’s not what happened. The people getting locked up for five full years were street junkies in Lowell who sold a few bags of heroin to finance their own usage. The junkie would get arrested on a first offense, plead guilty for a sentence of probation, and be right back out on the street doing the exact same thing because he was an addict and nothing in the criminal justice system even attempted to deal with that. Arrested a second time for the same thing, he was carted off to state prison for five years, a sentence more onerous than many who committed serious, violent crimes which had no minimum mandatory sentence. So the state paid to incarcerate all of these people only to have them emerge from prison five years later and begin the cycle all over again – because their addictions were never effectively addressed.
As Rita asserted tonight, if they were effectively treated for their addiction right from the start and helped to find a decent job, the cycle of crime and incarceration might be brought to an end. It’s not simple and it’s not cheap, but true leaders of the community don’t duck complicated issues and hide behind cheap rhetoric to score political points. True leaders use their stature in the community to persuade their fellow citizens that there are no easy solutions to such complex problems and that the only hope we have of improving the situation is to all work together in a mature, rational way. That’s what Rita Mercier did tonight. More public figures in the community should follow her example.