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Massachusetts Panel Reviews Mandatory Minimum Sentencing; Issues Strong Report and Legislation


December 1995

This fall, legislators in Massachusetts reviewed the state's mandatory sentencing laws and drafted legislation that would give judges more discretion in sentencing.

The panel was commissioned in response to a Boston Globe series highlighting the problems of mandatory sentencing -- prisons crowded with petty drug offenders, lack of judicial discretion, and the disparity between sentences for drug and violent crimes ("Overdosing on the Drug War," Boston Globe, September 24-27, 1995, p. 1).

In response to the series, the legislature set up a review panel to take a look at the issues of mandatory minimums and prison overcrowding. Charles Flaherty, the Speaker of the House, said that mandatory minimums, which he originally supported, "have proved to be counterproductive, especially for drug-related offenses" (Associated Press, "Speaker Files Legislation to Review Mandatory Sentences," Boston Globe, September 30, 1995, p. 3A).

"I believe it is time to review the effect of our mandatory minimum sentences in the judiciary and the entire criminal justice system," he said. "As we continue to deal with budget constraints, and as we seek to comply with court orders to relieve prison overcrowding, and as we face the dilemma of whether our scarce dollars should go to schools or to building new prisons, we really have no choice."

The commission was headed by Assistant Majority Whip Rep. Emanuel Serra (D-Boston) and was made up of members of the Criminal Justice, Human Services, Judiciary, Public Safety, and Ways and Means committees.

After studying the issue, the commission issued a strongly-worded report on the failures of the mandatory sentencing laws and draft legislation to give more discretion to judges. Judges would be allowed to depart from the mandatory minimum sentences and prisoners would be allowed to earn "good time" off their sentences. The legislation would also establish a state Sentencing Commission to further study sentencing policies.

Mandatory sentences do not work to deter drug crime and prevent the proper administration of justice, the panel's report found. "There can be no justice in our courts if a Judge is prohibited from sitting in judgment," the report said. "A judge is charged with the most serious of obligations. Anything which hinders a judge's efforts to fulfill those obligations provides a disservice not only to the courts and the criminal justice system but to the Commonwealth's citizenry as well."

Mandatory sentences for drug offenses have been the main cause of prison overcrowding in the state, the report found. Drug offenders have been taking space needed for the incarceration of violent offenders, who are then released into communities. Because of lack of funds, recently-released violent criminals have little supervision.

The report also advocated prison work programs to help pay the costs of incarceration. Alternative sentencing options, the report found, are effective in keeping drug offenders in touch with the community and in providing a way to pay for criminal justice programs.

"Tough on crime" policies are an enormous burden to the state and do not work to prevent crime, the report says. "Modern misconceptions measure a state's toughness on crime by the number of prisons under construction, the hiring of additional prison personnel and the length of sentences served by inmates. ... This long-standing incarceration philosophy is an economic sinkhole. ... If this errant logic on [sic] being tough on crime continues to hold it will inevitably exhaust the criminal justice system's funding."

[For more information about the report and the draft leislation, contact Joe Arrangio in the office of Assistant Majority Whip Emanuel G. Serra, Room 481, State House, Boston, MA, 02133-1054, 617-722-2255. For a copy of the report and a summary of the legislation, contact the National Drug Strategy Network office. To obtain a copy of the Globe series, contact the "Spotlight Team" at P.O. Box 2378, Boston, MA 02107-2378, 617-929-2000.]