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October 20, 2014

New top Justice in Massachusetts urges repeal of mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenders

Download (2)I just came across this notable Boston Globe article discussing this notable speech delivered late last week by the new Chief Justice of Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.  Here is how the Globe article starts:

The head of the state’s highest court called for an end to mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders on Thursday, saying they interfere with judges’ discretion, disproportionately affect minorities, and fail to rehabilitate offenders.  

Citing the opioid-addiction crisis, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants said the state needs to find better ways to treat addicts than sending them to jail. In 2013, 674 people died of opioid overdoses, compared with 338 in 2000.  “To those who favor the status quo in the so-called war on drugs, I ask: How well is the status quo working?” Gants said.

Gants, selected as chief justice by Governor Deval Patrick, called on the Legislature to pass laws to abolish mandatory sentencing.  His remarks, in his first State of the Judiciary speech, were part of a call for broader changes in the court system.  “We need our sentences not merely to punish and deter, but also to provide offenders with the supervision and the tools they will need to maximize the chance of success upon release and minimize the likelihood of recidivism,” he said.

Sworn in just 80 days ago, Gants said he will convene a group of judges, probation offices, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to study best practices to ensure what he called “individualized, evidence-based sentences.”  That means considering mental health or substance abuse treatment as well as time in prison.  Mandatory minimum sentences are automatic prison terms for those convicted of certain crimes, limiting judges’ discretion.

Gants’s proposal drew quick praise from members of the Massachusetts Bar Association, his audience at the association’s annual Bench-Bar Symposium in the John Adams Courthouse.  Marsha V. Kazarosian, president of the bar association, called Gants’s call to action “a gutsy move.”  She said there are “no cookie-cutter remedies” for drug defendants, and that an offender’s background should taken into consideration, and “that’s exactly what a judge is supposed to do.”

Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency agreed. “So many people involved in the criminal justice system have substance abuse and mental health issues,” Benedetti said.  “That’s the root of the problem, and this gets back to individual, evidence-based sentencing.”

The proposal was criticized by Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, head of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, who argued that the laws are designed to target drug traffickers, not merely drug users.  “The midst of an opiate overdose epidemic is not the time to make it easier for drug traffickers to avoid accountability and incarceration,” Blodgett said.  “An experienced trial judge should know that the drug defendants sentenced to incarceration are the ones who carry and use firearms, who flood communities with poison, and who commit the same distribution offenses over and over again.”

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Gants' full speech is worth reading, and here is a notable excerpt from the text:

Mandatory minimum sentencing in drug cases has had a disparate impact upon racial and ethnic minorities.  In fiscal year 2013, 450 defendants were given mandatory minimum sentences on governing drug offenses. In that year, which is the most recent year for which data are available, racial and ethnic minorities comprised 32% of all convicted offenders, 55% of all those convicted of non-mandatory drug distribution offenses, and 75% of all those convicted of mandatory drug offenses.  I do not suggest that there is intentional discrimination, but the numbers do not lie about the disparate impact of mandatory minimum drug sentences.

The impact of mandatory minimum drug sentences is far greater than the number of defendants who are actually given mandatory sentences.  Prosecutors often will dismiss a drug charge that carries a mandatory minimum sentence in return for a plea to a non-mandatory offense with an agreed-upon sentence recommendation, and defendants often have little choice but to accept a sentencing recommendation higher than they think appropriate because the alternative is an even higher and even less appropriate mandatory minimum sentence.  For all practical purposes, when a defendant is charged with a drug offense with a mandatory minimum sentence, it is usually the prosecutor, not the judge, who sets the sentence.

I have great respect for the prosecutors in this Commonwealth, and for the exercise of prosecutorial discretion that comes with the job; I was a prosecutor myself for eight years.  But where there is a mandatory minimum sentence, a prosecutor's discretion to charge a defendant with a crime effectively includes the discretion to sentence a defendant for that crime.  And where drug sentences are effectively being set by prosecutors through mandatory minimum sentences, we cannot be confident that those sentences will be individualized, evidence-based sentences that will not only punish and deter, but also minimize the risk of recidivism by treating the root of the problem behind many drug offenses -- the problem of addiction.

October 20, 2014 at 04:59 PM | Permalink

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Comments

I propose that Justice Gant personally carry out a single case experiment. Take a small amount of marijuana, try to sell it within the territory of the small dealer he wants to loose on the hapless residents of a nearby poor neighborhood.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 21, 2014 8:29:16 PM


The reason why only "low-level" offenders is mentioned is because the military/security complex wants to protect its favored cartels. Big dealers who work with government agencies will have even more reason to not fear arrest...as long as they don't become cowboys.

Posted by: TOM KELLUM | Oct 21, 2014 11:10:58 PM

I love the way lawyers talk.

"I have great respect for the prosecutors in this Commonwealth, and for the exercise of prosecutorial discretion that comes with the job; I was a prosecutor myself for eight years."

Translation. I was one of you, and know where you live. And you have no credibility. You prosecutors stink.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 22, 2014 6:05:04 AM

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