Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants recently gave a bold forecast for the Commonwealth’s criminal justice system. He predicted that the Massachusetts would soon abolish mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, and threw his own support behind ending the practice. Despite significant opposition from some district attorneys, Chief Justice Gants’ comments and Massachusetts’ current review of its sentencing guidelines are positive steps toward reforming a system that has too little an effect on public safety in its current form.
At the core of Gants’ argument for the abolition of mandatory minimum sentences is their basic unfairness. As he put it, mandatory minimums can treat “a drug runner the same as a kingpin” and “a defendant motivated by addiction the same as those motivated by predatory greed.” This one-size-fits-all policy inhibits the ability of judges to determine appropriate punishments. Moreover, as Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins points out, mandatory minimums often have a disastrous effect on the families of low-level drug offenders.
Tompkins, who is in favor of abolishing mandatory minimums, has also pointed to the enormous fiscal costs of the policy. He estimates that it costs an average of $46,000 a year to incarcerate an inmate. According to Northeastern law professors Daniel Medwed and Michael Meltsner, the state-wide average was around $53,040. Spending these sums and more to incarcerate nonviolent offenders who would not have been imprisoned otherwise is simply unreasonable.
In addition to eroding the judiciary’s discretionary authority and incurring a substantial cost to tax payers, the current regime of mandatory minimums is rife with racial disparities. As Gants pointed out, in 2013, minorities made up 32 percent of convicted drug offenders, yet 75 percent of those convicted with mandatory minimums.
At the very least, Massachusetts should revise its approach such that its mandatory minimum sentences reflect good public policy. Reducing mandatory minimums for drug offenses so that they are more reflective of these transgressions nonviolent character would go a long way towards ensuring that nonviolent offenders are not put behind bars for unnecessary lengths of time. So, too, would expanding the scope of judicial discretion in applying such sentences.
The current regime of mandatory drug sentencing in Massachusetts, and nation-wide, has proven unjust and fiscally draining. With support from judges and law enforcement officials, as well as an ongoing review of the state’s sentencing guidelines to draw upon, Massachusetts legislators have never had a better opportunity to begin reforming the state’s minimum sentences. They should not pass it up.
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