In a daring move to reform Massachusetts’s flawed justice system, Governor Deval L. Patrick ’78 recently initiated a reevaluation of the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws. These statutes, which require a minimum sentence for crimes that fit certain criteria, eliminate judicial discretion, can result in grievous injustices in sentencing, and shift the prison system to focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation. That’s not to say that mandatory minimum sentences are all bad—they have many benefits—but the rules as written are overly draconian and in need of reform.
Mandatory minimum sentences eliminate a judge’s ability to fit the punishment to the crime. This institutionalizes ignoring many nuances and mitigating circumstances that may reduce the punishment for crimes. Judges have frequently criticized these laws, which they say impair their ability to do their jobs.
Furthermore, since the law cannot anticipate every possible situation, in some infamous situations mandatory sentencing requirements can lead to punishments that are wildly disproportionate from the offense. The example most familiar to Harvard students is a Massachusetts law that adds at least two years to a drug sentence if the violation occurred within a 1,000-foot radius of a school property. Ten of Harvard’s houses count as within such an area, as does most of the City of Boston.
Other examples are even starker. Genarlow Wilson, for instance, is serving 10 years for what all parties agree was consensual oral sex because under Georgia law oral sex with a minor counts as child molestation. Jose E. Lopez of North Carolina received a 15-year sentence for unknowingly allowing an acquaintance to use a hotel room rented in his name to deal cocaine.
Mandatory minimum sentences also aggravate our already ineffective prison system. In the words of Patrick, “People come out more dangerous than when they went in.” Statistics show that nearly half of Massachusetts’ former prisoners commit another crime within a year of their release.
Worse, since prisoners with minimum sentences cannot be released early for good behavior, the system provides no incentives for reform. Without hope of getting out early and with the law apparently against them even when they do return, many prisoners do not participate in rehabilitation programs which they regard as futile.
Despite these flaws, mandatory minimums do play an important role in creating a consistent and efficient justice system. Even if it is unjust to punish an offender disproportionately to his crime, too much judicial discretion could create a chaotic system where punishments vary wildly for the same crimes. Consistency is important for fairness and because imprisonment does not act as a deterrent when punishments are not clearly connected to crimes. Additionally, mandatory minimum sentences increase the efficiency of the already-slow court system by cutting down on time needed to deliberate and determine a sentence.
What is needed, then, are mandatory minimum sentencing laws that balance justice and the need to reform criminals with the benefits of having mandatory minimums. The scale has tipped too far away from the former. It is high time for Massachusetts to examine at what cost mandatory minimum sentences are providing consistency, judicial efficiency, and the appearance of a “tough on crime stance.”
Such a review may not be the most politically wise choice, as reducing punishments is a political hornets’ nest. But it is a sound policy and morally the right thing to do. We commend Gov. Patrick for having the fortitude to stick his neck out in the name of justice.