Massachusetts legislators are again considering the repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.
Criminal justice reform efforts appear to have more momentum than ever before. This mandatory minimum repeal effort has been around since 2011 as proposed by then Governor Deval Patrick.
Governor Baker has not staked out a position on this matter, but DAs from Plymouth, Worcester, and Norfolk counties testified against changing the law. As always, most prosecutors want every tool available to them to force alleged drug dealers to cut deals under the threat of long prison terms.
Of course, mandatory minimums don’t mean that dangerous criminal can’t and won’t get tough sentences. It just means that judges have discretion to not harshly punish individual offenders when the facts don’t justify it, or when the cause of justice isn’t served by prison time.
School zone law mandatory minimums are easy for cops and prosecutors to abuse
Under the current statute, possession of any amount of any controlled substance, within a designated drug-free zone, or school zone, means a mandatory sentence of 2 years in prison. This means within 300 feet of a school, or 100 feet of a park. That is reduced down from 1000 feet when the law was changed a few years ago.
We recently had a client who was being surveilled by police for suspicion of allegedly selling drugs. When they were unable to witness a drug sale, the police decided to initiated a vehicle stop on a driving without a licence charge they were aware of, unrelated to any drug offense.
The car was stopped at a time and place of the police officer’s choosing, and just happened, by coincidence(!), to be in a drug free school zone. The police initiated a search of the vehicle, found drugs, and charged our client with a school zone violation, and she was facing the mandatory minimum.
Clearly their was no drug activity related to the location of the arrest. The school zone laws were created for the specific reason to protect kids from drug activity. Clearly this had nothing to do with this incident, and was simply an excuse for the police and prosecutors to squeeze our clients.
Ultimately we did not get to litigate the school zone issue specifically, since we got the charges dropped on a motion to suppress based on lack of probable cause for the stop.
But it’s easy to see how police can manipulate an arrest to be within a school zone, and prosecutors can and do choose to threaten defendants into taking a lesser plea or potentially providing other information in exchange for taking mandatory jail time off the table.
This is clearly unfair and an abuse of the intent of the statute.
Other Proposed Massachusetts Drug Possession Law Changes
Under current Massachusetts drug laws, possession of more than 200 grams of cocaine can result in a mandatory 15-year sentence. Possession of more than 100 grams of heroin can result in a mandatory sentence of 10 years in prison.
Because lengthy prison sentences for drug users and drug dealers have been shown to actually increase recidivism it seems his move is in the right direction. In addition, making the proposed legislation even better, it would allow drug offenders to work in work-release settings. This means they would be holding down legitimate jobs while serving their time, giving them an incentive for staying straight once released.
Governors and lawmakers across the nation are looking at criminal justice legislation and reform as they try to stretch their budgetary dollars. This tightening of the purse strings has caused these officials to take a closer look at their current policies and see that they are largely ineffective—something reform activists have been saying for years.
Sending a nonviolent drug offender to prison for 15 years doesn’t reform him and it isn’t effective at “sending a message” to others still on the street. It punishes–plain and simple. And while retributive justice might have a long standing history, this isn’t the dark ages.
Both the offender and the public at large are best served when nonviolent drug offenders are given the tools to succeed. This isn’t to say they shouldn’t face consequences for their violation, but these consequences shouldn’t come at an additional cost to the public, financially or otherwise.
Currently, Massachusetts drug laws are some of the harshest, and facing the potential of years in prison for an offense like this can be very frightening. If you are facing drug possession charges, contact our offices today to discuss your case and your potential options.