The head of the state’s highest court called for an end to mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders on Thursday, saying they interfere with judges’ discretion, disproportionately affect minorities, and fail to rehabilitate offenders.
Citing the opioid-addiction crisis, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants said the state needs to find better ways to treat addicts than sending them to jail. In 2013, 674 people died of opioid overdoses, compared with 338 in 2000.
“To those who favor the status quo in the so-called war on drugs, I ask: How well is the status quo working?” Gants said.
Gants, selected as chief justice by Governor Deval Patrick, called on the Legislature to pass laws to abolish mandatory sentencing. His remarks, in his first State of the Judiciary speech, were part of a call for broader changes in the court system.
“We need our sentences not merely to punish and deter, but also to provide offenders with the supervision and the tools they will need to maximize the chance of success upon release and minimize the likelihood of recidivism,” he said.
Sworn in just 80 days ago, Gants said he will convene a group of judges, probation offices, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to study best practices to ensure what he called “individualized, evidence-based sentences.”
That means considering mental health or substance abuse treatment as well as time in prison.
Mandatory minimum sentences are automatic prison terms for those convicted of certain crimes, limiting judges’ discretion.
Gants’s proposal drew quick praise from members of the Massachusetts Bar Association, his audience at the association’s annual Bench-Bar Symposium in the John Adams Courthouse.
Marsha V. Kazarosian, president of the bar association, called Gants’s call to action “a gutsy move.”
She said there are “no cookie-cutter remedies” for drug defendants, and that an offender’s background should taken into consideration, and “that’s exactly what a judge is supposed to do.”
Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency agreed.
“So many people involved in the criminal justice system have substance abuse and mental health issues,” Benedetti said. “That’s the root of the problem, and this gets back to individual, evidence-based sentencing.”
The proposal was criticized by Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, head of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, who argued that the laws are designed to target drug traffickers, not merely drug users.
“The midst of an opiate overdose epidemic is not the time to make it easier for drug traffickers to avoid accountability and incarceration,” Blodgett said. “An experienced trial judge should know that the drug defendants sentenced to incarceration are the ones who carry and use firearms, who flood communities with poison, and who commit the same distribution offenses over and over again.”
Two years ago, the Legislature reduced some mandatory sentences that were based on the amount and type of drugs sold, and a defendant’s criminal history. It was the first major relaxing of drug laws since the 1980s.
In 2013, 450 Massachusetts defendants were given mandatory sentences for drug offenses. As an example, a defendant convicted of trafficking more than 18 grams of heroin would face a minimum sentence of 3½ years in prison, but a defendant caught with 36 grams would face a minimum of five years.
Gants’s efforts mirror a broader movement nationally to shorten prison terms for drug offenders and do away with sentences that fail to consider a defendant’s background.
In the federal court system, changes to sentencing guidelines for drug defendants that would reduce penalties are set to take effect in November.
And US Attorney General Eric Holder issued a landmark order last year calling on federal prosecutors to move away from charging nonviolent, low-level drug offenders with serious crimes.
Holder also called for clemency for thousands of imprisoned drug offenders.
Gants made his announcement Thursday while outlining an aggressive agenda for the state Trial Court system, which includes the criminal courts and civil courts, and specialized courts that oversee housing and family matters.
He proposed reviving the image of the state’s civil court system and discussed services to help make residents more aware of their rights and give them better access to the legal system. Gants said he would increase the amount of court services centers from two to 15 within three years.
Gants also encouraged the Legislature to act on a report recommending more investment in free legal assistance in the civil system, and said he plans to change the jury selection process to get lawyers more involved.
But Gants’s primary focus was reforming sentences for drug offenders.
He cited statistics showing that mandatory sentences disproportionately affect minority groups: Though minorities made up only 32 percent of all convicted offenders in 2013, they represented 75 percent of those convicted of drug offenses with mandatory sentences attached.
“The numbers do not lie about the disparate impact of mandatory minimum drug sentences,” Gants said.
He also said that the threat of a mandatory sentence can tip the scales in the judicial system: A defendant could choose to plead guilty just to avoid the potential of a mandatory — and worse — punishment.