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Time to stop perpetuating failed policy on drug sentencing

There’s no shame in admitting that, despite the best of intentions, Massachusetts’ drug sentencing policies of the past 30 years have not worked. But there is harm in perpetuating them, as some district attorneys have urged (“Opponents of mandatory minimum sentencing fail to account for reality,” Letters, April 7). Let’s put aside the general claims about mass incarceration and how we compare to other states. Instead, we need to focus on what drives the imprisonment of drug offenders here in Massachusetts: mandatory minimum sentences.

The Department of Correction reports that about 10 percent of state prisoners are serving mandatory drug sentences, some for 15 years or longer. T hat’s a burden on the prison system, not to mention taxpayers. It’s worse at the county level. Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tomkins says that more than 85 percent of the prisoners in his custody are in jail for drug-related offenses. That’s why he calls mandatory minimums “forced sentencing.”

The district attorneys essentially concede that, by their own estimates, nearly 30 percent of the state prisoners who are serving mandatory minimums have no history of guns or violence. Many low-level drug offenders sell drugs to support their own addictions. As Norfolk County Sheriff Michael Bellotti has noted, there is no “bright or easy line between drug sellers and users.” We fail to provide true criminal justice, reduce recidivism, or protect public safety when all drug offenders are lumped together, regardless of the circumstances.

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The district attorneys point to the diversion programs that are used in some counties. That’s good. But when prosecutors leave office, those who follow in their shoes may choose a different approach. Similarly, past practices are still felt in today’s prisons. Drug offenders in the second decade of their sentences languish long after their prosecutors have moved on.

Massachusetts needs to enact drug sentencing laws that don’t depend on the views of individual district attorneys. Repealing mandatory minimum sentences would be a good start.

Marsha V. Kazarosian
President

Massachusetts Bar Association

Boston
Barbara J. Dougan

Massachusetts project director

Families Against
Mandatory Minimums
Arlington