The arguments in favor of abolishing mandatory minimum sentencing for convicted drug dealers and traffickers are not backed by facts or empirical data. In their recent op-ed “Mandatory minimum sentencing doesn’t work,” Northeastern law professors Daniel Medwed and Michael Meltsner state that “mass incarceration” of drug offenders due to a blind application of mandatory minimum sentences is ineffective, unjust, and costly. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be looking at the reality here in Massachusetts.
In Massachusetts, only 1 percent of the roughly 40,000 defendants convicted in fiscal 2013 were subject to a minimum mandatory drug sentence. It is foolish to think that this creates an undue financial burden on our prison system.
The prison population in Massachusetts is declining. According to information gathered by the Massachusetts Trial Court, the total prison population (state prison and county jails) has steadily decreased since 2008. In terms of per capita incarceration rates, Massachusetts is 48th in the nation. That’s hardly “mass incarceration.”
Those who oppose minimum mandatory drug sentences continue to suggest that “nonviolent drug offenders” are being warehoused in Massachusetts prisons at a huge cost to the taxpayers. It is time we debunk this myth once and for all. District attorneys across the Commonwealth offer diversion to first-time nonviolent juvenile and youthful offenders. Many of these cases are low-level drug cases. Some counties offer drug diversion to nonviolent offenders who have a substance abuse issue, and drug courts operate in various jurisdictions throughout the Commonwealth, offering drug-addicted offenders the opportunity to get treatment so that they can turn their lives around.
Conversely, according to a review of the records of every inmate serving time for a governing drug offense in a Massachusetts Department of Correction facility, 73 percent of them had a history of crimes involving firearms or violence.
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, armed 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.
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