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Ending the Drug War

District attorneys abuse mandatory minimum drug sentences

Commonwealth Magazine recently published an opinion piece written by Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, Margaret Monsell, staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, and Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoner’ Legal Services.

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. Before these laws were enacted, it was the job of the judge to sentence a guilty defendant. Now it’s the job of the prosecutor, who effectively operates all the levers of power in drug cases. The prosecutor decides whether to use the threat of a mandatory minimum sentence to coerce a defendant into accepting a plea deal. And if accepted, that plea deal comes with an agreed-upon sentence that the judge has no power to reject or amend.

It’s no surprise that the district attorneys want to hold onto this near absolute power.

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