Massachusetts Mandatory Minimum Sentencing – Part Two

My previous post on this topic talked about what mandatory minimum criminal sentencing is all about. Now I’ll speak to why it’s a bad idea. The principal reason advanced for enacting these kinds of law is deterrence: Make sure that no lenient (read: liberal) judge is allowed to reduce a sentence at all for certain kinds of crimes: The reasoning: “Tie the judges’ hands, and force them to impose the harshest of sentences – that will deter people from committing these crimes.” The problem is, study after study has shown that enactment of mandatory minimum sentences for most crimes does not deter the incidence of those crimes. It just fills up our prisons and jails. Further, a great deal of these types of sentencing laws apply to certain types of drug crimes – and strict, mandatory minimum sentences for these offenses are rarely justified. All they do is commit a defendant to a lengthy prison sentence, at taxpayers’ expense; they do nothing to rehabilitate the offender or offer him/her a “better way” to make money; and what comes out of prison years later is a hardened, uneducated, violent person – who is almost certain to offend again, and repeat the cycle all over again.

As I mentioned in my previous post on this subject, attorney David W. White Jr., President of the Massachusetts Bar Association, made this argument very well in a recent piece in The Boston Globe, “Fixing Our Criminal Sentencing System“, on this subject. He pointed out that many such strict minimum sentences apply to any illegal drug transactions occurring within 1000 feet of a school. The obvious (and worthwhile) goal of this legislation was to deter selling or dealing drugs to schoolchildren. The only problem? It is common for many schools to be located in many urban areas in Massachusetts. Many offenders arrested for buying or selling illegal drugs – even small amounts of marijuana – are subjected to such mandatory sentencing regardless of whether any schoolchildren were involved – because in urban areas, a school is often less than 1000 feet away from most heavily trafficked urban locations. The result? An offender could buy or sell a small amount of an illegal drug – for personal, recreational use only – and face a mandatory two years in jail, no questions asked. That sound heard when the jail door closes, is one more life down the drain, one more violent criminal put in training behind bars, and one more bill we as taxpayers have to pay. Smart judicial policy? Hardly. A better way out for such offenses is mandatory drug recovery programs, strict probationary requirements, and vocational training to actively employ offenders in the workplace.

Sometimes, “lock ’em up and throw away the key” is smart policy. In this case, it isn’t.