Way back in 1988, at the beginning of the “get-tough-on-crime” push in Massachusetts for tougher criminal sentencing and mandatory minimum sentencing laws (a massive failure,) a law was passed requiring the Massachusetts RMV to suspend the drivers’ licenses of anyone convicted of a Massachusetts drug offense. Even a minor possession charge. What did this result in? Over 27 years, tens and tens of thousands of people lost their drivers’ licenses – even if they weren’t sentenced to any jail time; a conviction, followed by probation, was enough to trigger the suspension. What did this further result in? Many of these people couldn’t get jobs, because they needed a car to drive to work if the job applied for wasn’t near public transportation. That resulted in cyclical unemployment, and an incentive to commit more crime to somehow get their hands on money. And who paid for all these negative results? You and me: The taxpayers. How? Through our taxes, to pay for unemployment, welfare, and overcrowded jails.
Imagine if you were caught with some pot, or even cocaine. If convicted for any reason – you’d lose your driver’s license. Try living that way. The vast majority of these people were low-level offenders, who simply possessed a controlled substance for heir own use — most were not dealers at all. Unless the offender lived and worked directly on a subway or bus line, many of these low-level offenders couldn’t secure many jobs; couldn’t get their kids to child care; couldn’t even go grocery shopping. Even after they paid their debt to society, through jail time, probation, community service or otherwise, they were still prevented from getting their lives back together. Just how many lives were sidelined in the process? In 2014 alone, Massachusetts suspended the licenses of 5,431 people convicted of Massachusetts drug crimes. The duration of the suspension varied with the offense: Possession meant a one-year revocation, which is bad enough. But what follows wasn’t exactly easy, either: To get a license reinstated, the RMV charges hundreds of dollars on fees. All of this was, predictably, a massive judicial, correctional, and public safety failure.
The new law, which Governor Baker is expected to sign sometime during the week of March 21 2016, will retain the suspension provision for drug traffickers, only, who if convicted will face a five-year suspension. The bill had broad support from law enforcement professionals, state Attorney General Maura Healey, and even the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association.
I’ve been a Boston drug crimes lawyer for quite a while now. I can assure you, “tough-on-crime” measures like this law, and mandatory sentencing laws, have served only to fill our jails and prisons to the point of overcrowding. These measures haven’t made us safer, and they’ve only served to introduce new crops of hardened, repeat crime offenders back on to the streets. Not exactly a bright way to craft criminal laws and public safety.