District attorneys abuse mandatory minimum drug sentences

June 15, 2017
Commonwealth Magazine
By Margaret Monsell, Rahsaan Hall, and Leslie Walker

As last month’s MassINC poll reports, two-thirds of Massachusetts residents believe that drug use should be treated as a health problem rather than as a crime. And only 8 percent of Massachusetts residents agree with Attorney General Jeff Sessions that mandatory minimum sentencing is a wise criminal justice policy.

But our drug laws haven’t changed much since the tough-on-crime days of the 1980s. Anybody convicted of trafficking in cocaine in Massachusetts today gets a mandatory two-year prison sentence, without regard to any of the considerations we (92 percent of us anyway) think are relevant, like — is the person a drug entrepreneur or merely a drug addict?

These laws are still on the books even though we’ve learned in the past 30 years that they’re ineffectual, costly and, yes, very discriminatory: Three-quarters of those convicted of minimum mandatory drug offenses in Massachusetts in a recent year were members of racial or ethnic minorities. So who, besides Jeff Sessions, thinks we should keep them?

Answer: most of the state’s district attorneys, all of whom gain enormous leverage from the laws imposing mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.

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