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Analysis: Weld Shifts, Along With Public, On Criminal Justice

Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld smiles as he talks to a reporter at a 2014 event. (Stephan Savoia/AP)
Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld smiles as he talks to a reporter at a 2014 event. (Stephan Savoia/AP)
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Back when he was running for Massachusetts governor in 1990, Bill Weld promised famously that, if elected, he would reintroduce prisoners to “the joys of breaking rocks.”

As governor, he followed up the tough talk by pushing for mandatory minimums for drug crimes. But judging by Weld’s remarks on the subject at an event this week, he’s had a change of heart. And that’s putting it mildly.

At an event for MassINC's 20th anniversary this week, Weld told CommonWealth Magazine editor Bruce Mohl that his position on criminal justice had evolved, particularly as it relates to drug crimes.

“I think the United States is undergoing a reexamination of that,” he said, referring to the tough-on-crime approach that held sway in the late-1980s and early '90s. “You’ll notice in Massachusetts we’ve stopped sending [drug offenders] into Framingham, which is incarceration; we send them somewhere else. And I’m totally behind that. And you would not have gotten that out of my mouth in the late '80s.”

Weld attributed his more muscular stance on crime when running for governor to his experience as a federal prosecutor, and to the state’s lenient policies at the time.

“I was coming off seven years in the [U.S.] Justice Department," Weld added. "And in this state there was the notorious 'Concord sentence,' where someone could get sentenced to 20 years in Concord and do six months or less. So there was no truth in advertising at all; so I was way up on my high horse about that.”

Now the former prosecutor has a different take, even addressing a 2015 rally on the National Mall about addiction and drug crimes.

“My remarks were, ‘I used to be a hard-boiled prosecutor, but this has got to stop,’ ” Weld stated, referring to the practice of treating addiction as a crime. “That’s how society viewed addiction, of both kinds [drug and alcohol]. And there’s a lot of evidence that it’s a public health emergency, and that the people do need help.”

Weld’s shift on drug crimes is very much in line with changes in public opinion on the issue. A 2014 poll of Massachusetts residents on criminal justice issues found some significant shifts compared to another poll from 1997.

The pendulum has swung from a desire for punishment towards rehabilitation in general, and for drug crimes in particular. In fact, the public now thinks that breaking rocks leads to "breaking bad." Residents in the 2014 poll felt the prison system itself is contributing to crime by hardening inmates to offend again upon release.


By a more than 2-1 margin, residents consider drug use a health problem (64 percent) rather than a crime (24 percent). And 83 percent think sending drug users to treatment rather than prison would be effective at reducing crime. These sentiments are echoed in national polling, as well. A 2016 poll by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that nearly 80 percent of voters nationwide favor ending mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Even more favor drug treatment and job training to reduce recidivism over giving out longer sentences.

As Weld noted, the original impetus for criminal justice reform was not justice as much as the bottom line.“It was Republican governors in the South not so long ago who began thinking, ‘Well, wait a minute. We’re paying $100,000 plus a year to keep these people incarcerated in our fine jails, and all they did was have a possessory offense of narcotics? They didn’t even sell? That doesn’t sound right to me.’”

It should be noted that Weld is not the only presidential ticket contender grappling with past stances on criminal justice. This spring, Hillary Clinton was confronted by protesters connected with the Black Lives Matter movement about her use of the term “super predators” to describe some criminals in 1996. Clinton and Bernie Sanders battled in debates over the 1994 crime bill, which included mandatory federal sentencing, among other provisions.

The bigger challenge for Weld is that his shift on the issue belies a larger question about his political philosophy. Weld tackled the apparent contradiction head on. Referring to the shift towards treating addiction as a disease instead of a crime, Weld told Mohl: “I think it’s more humane, and it’s less intrusive. So the growing libertarian in me, which was always there, is very pleased with this move.”

Steve Koczela is president of The MassINC Polling Group and a regular contributor to WBUR Politicker. He tweets @skoczelaRich Parr is research director of The MassINC Polling Group. He tweets at @richparr79.

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