Judges need discretion — and defendants need fairness — in sentencing

While I appreciate the important work that District Attorney Michael O’Keefe and his office do to prosecute criminals on the Cape and Islands (“Mandatory minimums play a role in criminal justice system,” Letters, Dec. 29), I must interject a dose of reality into the conversation about mandatory-minimum sentencing in the Commonwealth.

Enacted during the so-called war on drugs to satisfy the public’s need for stiffer penalties for drug use and abuse, mandatory minimum sentencing has been used by district attorneys throughout the state as a means to decide defendants’ fate and remove discretion from judges. Time and again, judges have complained that their hands are tied when mitigating circumstances argue for less severe sentencing. The net effect has been more incarcerated people serving longer sentences, the cost of which must be paid for by our taxes.

In addition, mandatory minimum sentences have served as a cudgel to coerce accused defendants into pleading guilty to lesser offenses, or turn state’s evidence, even in situations when they are innocent, in order to avoid either spending time in jail or away from family and jobs, or facing the possibility of an unreasonably long incarceration for a crime they did not commit.


It is time to restore the balance of power in the criminal justice system by getting rid of mandatory minimum sentencing and restoring discretion to judges who are appointed for that purpose. When all the players in the system — police, prosecutors, and judges — carry out their constitutionally mandated responsibilities, we will get real justice.

Alan Epstein

The writer is a member of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization’s Criminal Justice Task Force.