Mandatory minimums have few benefits, many drawbacks: Report

On behalf of Michael Foglia

Special commission recommends ending minimum sentences for drug crimes

A special commission that began its work two years ago is preparing its final report to deliver to Governor-elect Charlie Baker, according to Commonwealth Magazine. The commission was charged with finding ways of reducing prison overcrowding and recidivism rates, while improving the overall criminal justice system. Among the commission’s key proposals is the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for all drug crimes under Massachusetts law and increased parole eligibility. Supporters of the reforms say they will help reduce the state prison population and keep crime low.

Mandatory minimum sentences

The commission’s recommendation to end mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes is not entirely unexpected, though it has caused a bit of controversy. According to the Gloucester Times, state lawmakers eased many mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders in 2012. Furthermore, other states and even federal lawmakers are already either studying or actively eliminating mandatory minimum sentences.

The commission’s recommendations, by calling for an outright end to mandatory minimum sentences, go further than previous legislative reforms made by Massachusetts lawmakers. The commission also says that inmates serving time for all offenses, except murder and manslaughter, should be eligible for parole after they have served two thirds of the lower end of their sentences.

Prisons costly and overcrowded

Although the commission’s recommendations have garnered some criticism, reducing mandatory minimum sentences in general has broad bipartisan support. Mandatory minimums have been blamed for overcrowding prisons with inmates who should be in treatment programs. Analysts say treating drug addiction as more of a health issue rather than a criminal matter will better serve both drug offenders and the general public. Furthermore, the unnecessarily high incarceration rate leads to an increasingly costly prison system that drains tax revenues that could be better spent on schools, infrastructure, and other programs that better serve the citizens of Massachusetts.

Finally, critics say that mandatory minimums have unfairly targeted minorities and the poor and that there is little evidence that the sentences have actually helped lower crime levels. Governor-elect Baker, while not specifically commenting on the commission’s report, has previously indicated support for reducing mandatory minimum sentences. The issue is likely to become a legislative issue for state lawmakers in the coming years.

Drug defense

Although society and lawmakers are generally moving away from the “tough on crime” days of the previous decades, people charged with a drug crime should not become complacent. Tough laws remain on the books, including mandatory minimum sentences for both state and federal drug crimes, and those charged with a drug offense risk having their lives turned upside down by a conviction.

A criminal defense lawyer can provide clients facing such a charge with the advice needed to ensure their rights and best interests are protected. A successful defense often requires legal representation that is willing and able to look at a case from all angles in order to provide defendants with the best possible guidance moving forward.

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