Perhaps the most contentious criminal justice issue the Massachusetts Legislature is poised to tackle this year is mandatory minimum sentencing reform. Lawmakers are planning to hold a hearing Tuesday on a proposal to abolish mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders — a measure that Ralph Gants, chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, supports and all but one of the state’s district attorneys firmly oppose. Ending mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenses is a policy that makes sense for Massachusetts.
Prosecutors maintain that mandatory minimums for drug offenses — predetermined prison sentences based on the weight of the drug — provide for clarity and consistency. If they were to lose the lever of predetermined sentencing, district attorneys argue, they will lose an effective tool to take the most dangerous individuals off the street. Prosecutors insist they use their power carefully, and that many of the convicts serving mandatory minimum sentences are violent offenders. Without mandatory minimums, the decision to sentence will rest with the judge, who will factor in a prior record, a history of drug addiction, or whether the individual represents a real threat to public safety.
As state governments face shrinking budgets nationwide, there has been a marked shift away from costly and inflexible “tough on crime” corrections policies. Mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses has largely contributed to the alarming growth in prison populations in recent decades. But a significant body of research shows that mass incarceration has not had a meaningful impact on overall crime rates. Nor do long, mandatory prison sentences on drug offenses necessarily result in an increase in public safety.
A recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found that “the effect of increasing incarceration on the crime rate for the last 15 years has been effectively zero,” according to Lauren-Brooke Eisen, the center’s senior counsel. And that’s why states across the country have moved to reduce their prison populations, enacting smart sentencing policies. More than 20 states have reformed their mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses.
Massachusetts, which has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, spends about $50,000 per inmate annually. While the state’s prison population has decreased steadily for the past few years, the Commonwealth’s incarceration rate is still problematic. Because of racial disparities in the criminal justice system, mandatory minimum sentences disproportionately affect people of color. According to a recent report by public policy think tank MassINC on the state’s criminal justice system, incarceration rates for blacks and Latinos are about six and four times higher, respectively, than the incarceration rate for whites.
Rhode Island eliminated mandatory sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses six years ago. Its prison population decreased (by 9.2 percent), and the state saw a decline in violent crime between 2009 and 2011.
Perhaps more tellingly, public opinion is recognizing that stringent drug sentencing laws don’t work. Massachusetts residents widely support repealing mandatory minimums. A statewide poll conducted by MassINC last year found that only 11 percent of those polled are in favor of requiring judges to sentence some offenders to prison for a minimum period of time. In other words, most of the people who are served by the district attorneys — voters who elected them to the position in the first place — prefer judicial discretion. The state’s district attorneys are indeed accountable to the community, and yet their collective opposition to this sensible policy change doesn’t reflect their constituents’ views.
“The judicial system in Massachusetts and elsewhere is about individualized justice,” former Massachusetts congressman and prosecutor Bill Delahunt said during a criminal justice forum at the State House earlier this week. But mandatory minimums often inflict an injustice, he added, because they’re not about individualized justice. Delahunt is right. It is time for the Legislature to repeal mandatory minimum drug sentences.