A Little Sanity in the Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Debate

Earlier this week, Attorney General Eric Holder unveiled a Justice Department proposal to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.  Described as “courageous” and “groundbreaking,” the BBA was glad to hear the news. If you’re asking us why, let’s just say the BBA has been calling for sentencing reform since at least 1989, when we published the first of numerous reports calling attention to the harms wrought by misguided mandatory minimums.  Just for the record, the Holder guidelines essentially echo what we’ve been saying all along.

Among other things, the Justice Department’s new guidelines focus on reducing our overcrowded prisons by doing away with mandatory minimums for certain offenses and reducing sentences for certain elderly prisoners.  The new guidelines also emphasize drug treatment programs as an alternative to prison. 

In his speech this week at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting, the Attorney General said that we need to work to “ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter, and rehabilitate – not merely to warehouse and forget.”  Bravo!  We’ve been saying the same thing about sentencing and incarceration for more than twenty years. 

Repealing mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses is sensible, fiscally responsible, and more protective of public safety.  It also returns to judges the discretion they need to dispense fair and effective justice.   In the last few years, the BBA has played a part in incremental but significant victories at the state level:  

  • During the 2009-2010 legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill making certain nonviolent drug offenders eligible for parole after serving half of their sentences. 
  • During the 2011-2012 legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill reducing mandatory minimum sentences for many drug offenses.  In certain cases, drug offenders already in prison became eligible for parole, work release and earned good time.  The drug-free school zone was reduced from 1,000 feet to 300 feet and the school zone law no longer applied to drug offenses occurring between 12:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m.  Also, the law increased the quantity of drugs needed to trigger some trafficking offenses.

We have a long way to go until mandatory minimum sentences are repealed.   The Joint Committee on the Judiciary expects to hold a public hearing on all sentencing bills in 2014.  Expected to be on the list of bills for the sentencing hearing is House Bill 1646, “An Act to repeal mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses.”  With the hearing several months away, we will use this opportunity to work with legislators and others who are also thinking about public safety and the administration of justice.  We anticipate recommendations from the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Commission in the coming months.  This group is made up of public safety officials, legislators, prosecutors and defense attorneys, including a BBA representative.  Their recommendations are expected to cover sentencing.  

- Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association
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