Tag Archives: mandatory minimum

Discourse and Disagreement on Guns

When lawyers talk about gun and firearm safety, they often use words and phrases like “reasonableness” “narrowly crafted,” “overbroad,” “civil rights,” “minimum mandatory sentences,” “loopholes,” and “privacy issues.”  Gun and firearm safety is neither easy nor straightforward. 

In an effort to make sense of it all, the Boston public hearing on gun control and firearm safety will be held on Friday, September 13th at 10 a.m.  The Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security has reserved Gardner Auditorium at the State House for the fourth hearing on this subject.  With 58 bills on the agenda covering the entire spectrum of issues connected to gun control laws, a large crowd is expected to turn out to testify or just listen that day.  We’ll be there too. 

The BBA is still uncertain if it will support or oppose any specific proposal.  Our own internal study group has been hard at work debating various aspects of gun control and firearm safety and its work continues as the public hearing approaches.  Our only conclusions thus far are that the BBA can add value to the debate by parsing the legal points from the political positions and the legislature expects to hear from us.

While it’s anything but simple, there are some areas where reasonable people can agree.   First, Massachusetts already has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country.  Even so, it is not clear whether any law could prevent a tragedy like the one at Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut.  Second, Massachusetts gun laws need to be reformed because they are convoluted, complex, and difficult to understand, even for lawyers.  Massachusetts gun laws can be found in state statutes, case law, and even local ordinances and regulations.  Third, we need to figure out ways to keep guns away from criminals, juveniles, and those with mental health disqualifications.  Finally, any legislation needs to address public safety and privacy interests of individuals at the same time.       

Regardless of the legislature’s actions, personal firearm ownership and the ability to carry a concealed gun will remain a hotly debated topic.  Proponents of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms will continue to feel as strongly about their rights as their opponents do about the need for tougher gun laws.  Discourse and disagreement go hand-in-hand with gun control. 

– Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association
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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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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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