Since yesterday was Memorial Day (Happy Memorial Day!) and we were closed, we're doing Massachusetts Monday today.
Long live the local paper! The Fitchburg, Mass. Sentinel & Enterprise features a guest column from FAMM Massachusetts project director Barb Dougan. It's called "The High Cost of Mandatory Minimums," and you can read all of it here. It makes a more-than-compelling case that mandatory minimum drug sentences waste our money, don't reduce crime, and don't rehabilitate.
Many of us don't know anyone in prison. The laws that determine who goes to prison and for how long may not seem to affect you. But as a taxpayer, you pay for those laws. In fact, you pay a lot. It costs about $46,000 a year to keep one man or woman in state prison -- almost the cost of a four-year degree at UMass Amherst. Are you getting your money's worth?
For some criminals, we'd be willing to pay almost any price to keep them locked up. But when it comes to drug crimes, Massachusetts' drug-sentencing laws don't allow judges to distinguish between those who are violent or dangerous and those who aren't. The courts can't consider whether the person was the mastermind or simply made a phone call, whether the person was a first-time offender or a hardened criminal. They can't even consider what might prevent future crimes, such as ordering drug treatment instead of prison time.
Instead, our laws require judges to impose one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum prison sentences for many drug offenses. We lock 'em all up, regardless of whether they deserve it or we need it. Mandatory sentences for drug crimes -- 5, 10, even 15 years or more -- are often longer than the sentences for violent crimes.
Maybe we could justify the soaring costs if we were getting something for our money. But drug abuse and addiction only increase. In 2009, the state's OxyContin and Heroin Commission warned that drug addiction had become a public health epidemic. Drug crimes haven't been reduced either. As one low-level drug offender is sent off to prison, another takes his place. Demand controls supply, not tough-sounding laws.
Our laws also govern how drug offenders spend their time in prison. While serving mandatory minimum sentences, they aren't allowed to take part in vocational and educational programs that help prisoners re-enter the (legal) job market after being released. In addition, unlike most prisoners, drug offenders aren't eligible for parole. Instead, they walk out of prison with no re-entry plan and no supervision. A bipartisan commission convened by former Gov. Romney called these restrictions a "recipe for recidivism."Compare Barb's article with this nice feature on the effectiveness of drug courts called, fittingly, "Drug Courts Help Addicts." Drug courts cost less and work better than mandatory minimum prison sentences. But judges can't use them if we require them to give mandatory prison terms instead.
Barb's recent letter to the Boston Globe describes how mandatory minimum sentences help pack Massachusett's jails and prisons tighter than a tin of tuna. Repealing those laws -- or at least creating common-sense exceptions to them -- would help considerably.
And last but not least, this lengthy article from The Herald News focuses on Massachusetts' three strikes law, shares the differences in the pending House and Senate bills, and notes the increased prison space troubles that harsher sentences could cause. But, seriously, how tough is tough enough?
Unfortunately, there’s a mistake in the next paragraph's description of the three strikes bills. For those the article refers to as “second-class offenders” (a term not used in any of the bills), the two prior offenses are not based on the proposed list. Instead, they are based on the length of the sentences for the two prior convictions. Under the current habitual offender law, it’s three years for each. While the Senate would keep that section of the law, the House would reduce the requirement to one year for each conviction. FAMM and many others strongly oppose that change because it would allow more low-level drug offenders – indeed, more low level, nonviolent offenders of all stripes – to be prosecuted as habitual offenders and sentenced to maximum time.
Massachusetts already has a habitual offender law that requires someone convicted multiple times serve at least half of his or her sentence before becoming eligible for parole.
The new law would create two classes of habitual offenders. Both would serve longer sentences.
A person convicted as a first-class offender - defined as someone with a total of three crimes under the House or Senate lists - would serve the maximum sentence for a crime, without parole eligibility. A second-class offender - someone convicted of a crime on the list without two prior convictions on the list- would serve at least two-thirds of the sentence before becoming eligible for parole.
To balance the impact on state prisons the Senate bill reduces mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offences. But the reductions would amount to only a year or two off current sentences, not enough to offset the impact of the three-strikes provisions.
Barbara Dougan, campaign director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums said the Senate proposal does not go far enough.
"Our organization believes that these sorts of mandatory drug sentencing laws should be repealed altogether," said Dougan.Keep tabs on all the Massachusetts reform news, bills, and updates, at our website.