End Massachusetts Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentencing – Part One of Two

Readers of this blog know that I’ve made my opposition to mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, well known. It is a foolhardy, unjust, wasteful, and expensive approach to sound legal policy when it comes to Massachusetts drug crimes. As a Massachusetts drug charges attorney, I know this all too well.

In fact, I’ll call this foolish approach to criminal ‘justice’ just what it is: A knee-jerk, reflexive reaction advanced by get-tough-on-crime advocates, who never took the time to actually think about the results these sentencing laws would bring to Massachusetts drug defendants. In case you haven’t read anything on the subject of mandatory minimum sentencing, I’ll once again make it clear: It’s a pair of handcuffs, made just for a judge. You could also think of it as a mouth gag, made just for a judge. That’s because these law take all discretion and decision-making that a judge is supposed to exercise when it comes to sentencing, away from him or her: If a guilty verdict is returned on the charge, the judge has NO CHOICE but to sentence the defendant to the mandatory minimum sentence that the relevant statute calls for. And when it comes to Massachusetts drug offenses, some of these sentences can be shocking.

The reason has to do with largely two reasons: 1) The weight (amount) of the particular drug that the defendant is charged with possessing or distributing, and 2) School zones. In the first example, sentencing penalties for controlled substances in Massachusetts hinge a great deal on how much – i.e., how many grams – of the substance the defendant was charged with possessing. Even a small amount of, say, cocaine, or prescription medication – can result in being sentenced to several years in state prison (that’s not a House of Correction (HOC,) by the way. HOC’s are for sentences of 2 ½ years or less. State prison is much more severe and much harsher.) In the second example, persons can be sentenced to mandatory minimum sentences if they are found guilty of committing a Massachusetts drug offense within 300 feet of a designated school zone. 300 feet – that’s the length of a football field. And if you’re arrested anywhere inside this distance from a designated school zone, and if you’re found guilty of the charge – a judge has no choice but to impose a mandatory minimum sentence. However unfair. However unjust. However unwise. However unfair. However unproductive.

The Massachusetts school zone law is a perfect example of reflexive, unthinking overreaction by the public and the legislature when it comes to criminal justice: Advocates of this law wanted to keep drugs and drug dealers away from schools and kids. But while some kids under 18 do use drugs, very few drug dealers deal to young kids on or near school grounds – they know there are almost always police, or crossing guards, in the area. The dealing usually done in the neighborhoods, away from schools. Care to know just how draconian some of these mandatory drug sentencing laws can be? Before it was amended a few years ago, the original school zone mandatory sentencing law prescribed the distance at 1000 feet of a designated school zone. 1000 feet – that’s 3 and 1/3 football fields, end-to-end! This was such a huge distance that in most Massachusetts cities and towns, it was impossible, standing at any given spot in the city or town, not to be within 1000 feet of a school. Thankfully, the law was also later amended to provide that the school zone law does not apply between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m., (which makes common sense – not that this rare commodity is found frequently on Beacon Hill.)

I’ll talk about some of the shocking injustices mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws have had, in my next post on this subject, in a few days.