Massachusetts Crime Bill Smart On Drug Sentencing Reform

As of July 26 at 11:30 PM, Governor Deval Patrick is still considering whether or not to sign the final version of the Massachusetts crime bill that the House and Senate sent to him for his signature very recently. There has been much debate about this measure, also known as the “three strikes crime bill,” since it would remove parole eligibility for convicts who have been convicted three times or more for certain violent crimes. There has been a lot of heated debate about this bill, with crimes victims’ advocates supporting the measure, and prisoners’ rights and other liberal groups opposed to the measure. The Chief Justice of the state Supreme Judicial Court also weighed in earlier today, in response to a letter of inquiry Gov. Patrick sent the high court, requesting clarification of certain mandatory appellate issues the bill might raise.

I’ve written previously about this issue, but I wanted to highlight a key portion of this bill that is receiving only secondary attention, too far behind the primary issue of whether the bill is fundamentally fair or not.

That portion of the bill has to do with changing the way judges can sentence non-violent drug offenders, and in possibly paroling inmates who are currently serving time in our jails and prisons for non-violent drug offenses. I’ve said repeatedly, in this blog and elsewhere, that our sentencing laws dealing with non-violent drug offenses are foolish and counter-productive. Incredibly unjust mandatory sentencing statutes in Massachusetts force judges to incarcerate many defendants convicted of non-violent drug offenses, without any discretion at all. An example: If you were arrested for buying or selling just over an ounce of pot within 1000 feet of a school zone, and you were convicted, the judge hearing the case has NO CHOICE but to sentence you to jail or state prison. Even though you were only buying perhaps an ounce and half or two, for your own private, recreational use. Even though your activities had absolutely nothing to do with selling to or involving school-age children in any way whatsoever.

As a Norfolk County drug crimes lawyer, I know only too well how unjust and counter-productive these laws can be. Yet there they sit, valid laws, on the books. These laws were enacted in a stampede of legislative anxiety and haste, propelled by public anger over a relatively few cases of major, big-time drug dealers who had involved school-age kids. These laws waste taxpayers’ money, they waste judicial resources, and they waste and ruin lives that might otherwise be productive.

This bill would repeal mandatory prison sentences for non-violent drug offenses, and that’s a good idea, long past due. Massachusetts prisons and jails are bursting at the seams, over-crowded in ways the average person has no idea about. Our jails and prisons should be reserved for violent offenders – people convicted of murder, rape and sexual offenses, armed robbery, kidnapping, and those convicted of other violent crimes. Remember this: For every non-violent, small-time drug offender that a judge locks up, that’s one less space available to keep a violent offender off the streets.

So altering a line from an old “Dirty Harry” movie, the average Massachusetts resident needs to ask themselves one question: Do you want to be safe walking the streets, or not? Well, do you?

I trust that makes the point.