Like an unusually large wave that occasionally hits the shore, every few years there is a swell on Beacon Hill to “reform” something. Back in the 1990’s, get-tough-on-crime advocates successfully passed legislative “crack-down” amendments to many criminal law statutes, several of them requiring mandatory minimum sentences for a variety of crimes – mostly Massachusetts drug offenses. As a Massachusetts drug offenses lawyer, I can assure you that this approach produced some pretty awful legal results in courtrooms across the state – tying judges’ hands any time that a guilty verdict was returned by a jury on often victim-less, relatively minor drug charges.
Now, a backlash of sorts has hit Beacon Hill – in the current wave to reform many elements of the criminal justice system in Massachusetts. The overall thrust of this effort, its sponsors say, is to reduce the numbers of people that are caught up in the criminal courts here. In the process, the bill has sparked a lot of debate, and criticism as well. I’ll list out the major suggested changes below, with some brief commentary:
- Current mandatory minimum sentences for several drug offenses — including cocaine distribution and selling drugs inside 300 feet of a school — would be repealed. Mandatory minimum sentences require judges to sentence anyone found guilty of certain crimes, many of which are various drug offenses, to a minimum jail or prison time, with no chance of parole. This would give back to judges the wider discretion they once had in these cases, and as anyone who knows me is aware, that’s a good thing. As I’ve spoken of and written previously, mandatory minimum sentences do little if anything to prevent crime, and just fill our prisons up with low-level drug offenders, instead of reserving space for violent criminals. Notwithstanding, the senate’s bill would retain mandatory minimum sentences for defendants convicted of dealing the largest amounts of illegal drugs – usually, over 100 grams of cocaine or heroin. Any drug trafficking charges involving opioids would also trigger mandatory minimums.