In his State of the Judicial speech delivered today, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants argued that the Legislature should enact legislation to end mandatory sentencing in drug cases. Gants, who has served on the Supreme Judicial Court since 2009, was elevated to chief justice three months ago upon the retirement of Chief Justice Roderick Ireland.
The Boston Globe reported that Gants said he will convene a group of judge, prosecutors, probation officers, and defense attorneys to study the best way to ensure “individualized, evidence-based sentences.” Gants noted that statistics have proven that minorities are disproportionately affected by mandatory minimum sentences. Although minorities comprised only 32 percent of people convicted of crimes in Massachusetts in 2013, they represented 75 percent of the individuals who received mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.
Gants also correctly noted that mandatory minimum sentences allow prosecutors, not judges, to largely determine what sentence a defendant will receive. Most drug trafficking cases work like this: A defendant might be charged with trafficking between 100 and 200 grams of cocaine, which carries a mandatory minimum 8 years in state prison. The prosecutor will tell the defense attorney the the charges will be reduced to trafficking between 36 and 100 grams (which carries a 3 1/2 year mandatory minimum state prison sentence), but only if the defendant pleads guilty and accepts a five-year state prison sentence. Maybe that’s a good deal for the defendant, but what if he has a viable defense? What if there is a good motion to suppress or if he can prove that the drugs were never in his possession? The defendant has two options – he can roll the dice, litigate a motion to suppress, and try the case. If he wins, he doesn’t go to prison. If he loses, he gets at least 8 years in state prison (and the sentencing judge has no authority to reduce the penalty below 8 years). Or, the defendant can plead guilty and accept 5 years in state prison. The five-year sentence might still be disproportionate to the crime and inappropriate given the defendant’s personal circumstances, but the defendant might not want to risk going to trial, losing, and being subject to an even more Draconian sentence. The Legislature ought to give sentencing judges the authority to impose appropriate sentences. The power afforded to prosecutors who litigate cases involving mandatory minimum sentences is dangerous, especially in counties like Middlesex, where there is a documented recent history of assistant district attorneys making decisions based on politics rather than the law.
The comments made by Gants are in line with developments in the federal system. Within the next month, federal sentencing guidelines will reduce the sentences for people convicted of drug crimes. Attorney General Eric Holder has given speeches in which he expresses concerns at the harsh penalties often imposed against drug defendants.
The “War on Drugs” has been a failure. Several decades of experience has proven that locking up drug defendants for many years while failing to offer rehabilitative services has done nothing other than waste tax dollars. It is refreshing to see Chief Justice Gants acknowledging that a change needs to be made.