Myths of Mandatory Sentencing

It seems everyone agrees that Massachusetts’ criminal sentencing laws need improvement.  Public safety, crime prevention, and punishment are important things to consider when contemplating any reforms in this area.  Yet it’s also important to understand that laws aimed at significantly lengthening prison sentences and making them mandatory, or changing parole eligibility, will impose more costs on our criminal justice system.

For the first time, the Legislature may be debating a habitual offender bill this session.  Earlier this week, we learned that these habitual offender bills, though seemingly losing steam after an emotional hearing before the Judiciary Committee in March, have been actively considered behind the scenes.

At the public hearing on March 16th, there were three bills under consideration that dealt with mandatory minimum sentences for serious crimes, including one that would eliminate parole for repeat violent criminals, with no regard to the facts of an individual case.  The other two bills, as currently drafted, would expand mandatory minimum sentencing to non-violent offenses including drug crimes, check fraud, and even tax evasion.  Although well-intentioned, these proposals capture crimes that, while being harmful to society, do not present a danger to the general public.

Because of time constraints, the BBA did not analyze the details of each of the bills.  But the BBA does oppose mandatory minimum sentences, with the exception of crimes mandating life imprisonment for murder.  The bills are overly broad, do not exclude nonviolent drug offenses, and would undoubtedly result in lengthy and costly sentences.  Here are some of the reasons the BBA opposes mandatory minimum sentences:

  • they have caused prison and jail overcrowding;
  • they have resulted in an increase in court congestion;
  • they have not reduced our serious crime problem;
  • criminal sentences need to correspond with each offender’s individual culpability and still give judges discretion.

Mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases are notoriously unjust because the laws do not differentiate between the drug kingpin and the first time drug offender.  As a result, prisons are being filled with low-level drug offenders serving protracted sentences.

Currently in Massachusetts, convicted felons are eligible for parole after serving half of their sentence, except for first-degree murderers, who are not eligible for parole.  Those convicted of second-degree murder must serve 15 years of a life sentence before they are eligible for parole.

By failing to take a nuanced approach we could end up with very serious and unintended consequences.  Massachusetts needs to be both tough, but also smart, on crime.

Any habitual offender law that the Legislature considers needs to be drafted so that only the most violent offenses are targeted.
– Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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