Massachusetts Mulls Eliminating Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Drug Crimes

By McCarton Ackerman 06/11/15

Critics argue that mandatory minimum sentences are unevenly distributed based on race.

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Massachusetts could soon be eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, but elected officials and advocates on both sides of the issue have come out swinging in Boston.

The state’s current mandatory minimum range from one to 15 years and cover a variety of drug-related crimes including trafficking, distribution, or possession with intent to distribute to a minor and drug violations near a school. But with 80% of state inmates suffering from a substance abuse problem and the cost of incarcerating an inmate averaging $47,000 per year, many believe the current punishments aren’t the most effective option.

"Mandatory minimums are neither individualized nor evidence based," said Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants. “When it comes to drug crimes, one size doesn’t fit all.”

Gants also argued that mandatory minimum sentences are unevenly distributed based on race. Although black and Hispanic individuals commit 44% of drug offenses in the state, they comprise 75% of the individuals who receive mandatory minimums. He also believes that lower crime rates have no relation to stricter sentencing laws.

However, state prosecutors are reluctant to remove these sentences entirely. Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gullini believes they should still apply to those “who are trafficking in very serious drugs.” Others have stated that going by the book helps prevent situations in which wealthy, white defendants are sentenced differently than poor, black defendants.

Massachusetts currently has among the lowest incarceration rates in the country and less than 1,000 people are currently serving mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. But despite this, some officials want drug treatment to take precedence over lengthy amounts of time behind bars for non-violent crimes that don’t impact children.

“We need smart reforms that will allow us to focus on treatment for those we are most able to help,” said Attorney General Maura Healey. “History shows we cannot incarcerate our way of this public health crisis.”

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) has not indicated whether he will support eliminating any mandatory minimums, but said he supports “more pathways to treatment for those who are dealing with drug and substance abuse issues.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.