Should Massachusetts repeal its mandatory minimum drug sentences?
Marsha V. Kazarosian
A Haverhill attorney and president of the Massachusetts Bar Association
Change is not easy. For a generation, reasonable criminal justice policies have been drowned out by the loud voices of well-meaning “war on drugs” devotees calling for harsh punishments that simply result in putting more people in prisons. What is harsher is the reality that this approach has failed.
The state’s Special Commission on the Criminal Justice System voted in June to recommend eliminating mandatory minimum sentences in nonviolent drug cases. Part of the analysis was weighing the overwhelming financial burden such sentences place on the Commonwealth against their effect on the war on drugs. The commission’s recently released report says that if there are no changes to incarceration policies, an additional 10,000 beds will be needed by 2020 at a capital cost of $1.3 billion to $2.3 billion, resulting in an annual operating increase in the budget of $120 million.
The human cost is just as compelling. Massachusetts is in the middle of an unprecedented drug epidemic. Drug users, and the public as a whole, are better served by treatment for their addiction rather than the immutable incarceration solution imposed by mandatory minimum sentences. Treatment reduces recidivism. Incarceration clearly does not.
Specialty drug courts, including those in Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, and Malden, are a key tool in the treatment strategy recommended by Governor Charlie Baker’s Opioid Working Group. The recently released report noted: “When substance abuse is an underlying factor for criminal behavior, the use of specialty drug courts are effective in reducing crime, saving money, and promoting retention in drug treatment.” That is a compelling finding. But mandatory minimum sentences remove the drug courts’ ability to provide the alternative treatment options many offenders need.
There is a nonsensical notion that repealing mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders would allow drug offenders to avoid jail altogether. It would not. It would simply put the decision of appropriate punishment back to the person whose job it is to know more about an individual’s offense than any one-size-fits-all sentencing guideline could possibly contemplate: the Massachusetts judge.
Massachusetts is not alone in turning to alternative criminal justice strategies. Sensible policies are at our fingertips. Massachusetts should join the other 20 plus states that have recently reformed or eliminated mandatory minimum sentences.
Essex District Attorney, Democrat of Peabody
It is time the myth that mandatory minimum drug sentences cause our prisons to overflow with “non-violent drug offenders” is debunked once and for all.
Number one: The prison population in Massachusetts is declining. According to the Executive Office of Public Safety, there are 1,000 empty beds in Massachusetts prisons. In terms of per capita incarceration rates, Massachusetts is 48th in the nation.
Number two: Drug traffickers are not “non-violent.” According to a review by the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association of the records of every inmate serving time for a governing drug offense in a Massachusetts Department of Corrections facility, 73 percent of them had a history of crimes involving firearms or violence.
Mandatory minimum sentences are based on the type and weight of the drug. The lowest amount that carries a minimum mandatory sentence is 18 grams of heroin, which equals 180 hits.
Individuals charged with possession are not subject to a mandatory minimum sentence. In many cases, a person charged with possession is offered the chance to enter a treatment program in lieu of prosecution. In Essex County, that is done through the district attorney’s office drug diversion program or through a drug court in Lynn and Lawrence.
Finally, district attorneys are elected by the people of their counties to uphold the law created by their elected representatives in the Legislature. The Legislature has instituted minimum mandatory sentences on a wide variety of crimes, including multiple-offense drunk driving, subsequent offense robbery of a person over 60, stalking in violation of a restraining order, illegal possession of a firearm, and inducing a minor into prostitution. If what opponents of minimum mandatory drug sentences say is true, why aren’t these sentences also being questioned?
It is the duty of the district attorney to protect the safety of the public by holding the guilty accountable, to protect the innocent, and to seek justice for the crime victim. When it comes to the people who have made the conscious decision to make a profit off human misery and to peddle poison in the streets of our communities, the threat they pose to our safety is grave and the numbers of victims they have claimed is vast. With an unprecedented number of fatal opiate overdoses, now is not the time to make life easier for drug dealers and traffickers.
Globe correspondent John Laidler solicited opinions for this exchange. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.