Supporters of justice for all—some shown in the photo above—turned out in force on June 9 for a packed hearing before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary at the Massachusetts State House, to support the repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.
Massachusetts laws mandating—requiring—minimum sentences for drug offenses force judges to sentence people to set terms in state prison and county houses of correction, including defendants who have no criminal records and obvious treatment needs.
Based on testimony we submitted, here's why the ACLU of Massachusetts supports "An Act to Eliminate Mandatory Minimum Sentences Related to Drug Offenses" (Senate Bill 786 and House Bill 1620), from Sen. Cynthia Creem and Rep. Benjamin Swan.
Mandatory minimum sentences cost too much
One year in state prison now costs over $53,000 per prisoner, so eliminating mandatory minimums for drug offenses could mean very significant saving for state taxpayers without jeopardizing public safety.
A 2012 Massachusetts Department of Correction report shows that 1,550 people were serving mandatory minimum drug sentences in state prison, costing the state $70 million per year. Each mandatory minimum sentence can cost the Commonwealth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In 2014, another Massachusetts DOC research report observed: “The mass incarceration of low-level drug offenders only adds to the fiscally exorbitant problem of overcrowding and mass imprisonment. The punitive approaches to combating substance abuse have only exacerbated the economic and social costs of incarceration.”
Alternatives cost less and work better
Community-based alternatives and substance abuse and mental health treatment programs have produced lower recidivism rates than prison sentences in Massachusetts and elsewhere. Treatment programs cost much less than incarceration. Many people who commit drug offenses carrying mandatory minimum sentences have relatively un-serious criminal histories and are good candidates for treatment.
Mandatory minimum sentences exacerbate racial disparities
In Massachusetts, the 20% of the population who are people of color make up about one-third of convicted drug offenders, but they are about 75% of those sentenced to a mandatory minimum term, according to the most recently available numbers, from 2013.
People in Massachusetts want change
A 2014 public opinion poll showed only 11% of Massachusetts residents support mandatory minimum sentencing, and 76% of residents want judges to have the latitude to impose a sentence of required drug treatment instead of a mandatory term of imprisonment.
Repealing mandatory minimum sentences has succeeded in other states
A growing number of states have come to the understanding that mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses have failed, and have changed course. A few examples:
- In 2012, California repealed provisions of its “three strikes” law which imposed a mandatory life sentence on offenders convicted of a third felony offense, including a felony drug offense. Under the new law, qualifying “third strikes” are limited to serious, violent crimes. Hundreds of prisoners have petitioned for resentencing, over one thousand have been released, and the recidivism rate for this group has been low—considerably lower than overall California recidivism rates, and the state has reported millions in cost savings.
- In 2003, Michigan repealed almost all mandatory minimums for drug offenses. From 2006-2010, its prison population fell 15 percent, spending on prisons declined by $148 million, and both violent and property crime rates declined.
- In 2009, New York expanded treatment options while repealing most mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Since then, its prison population has fallen by almost 7 percent, and its crime rate has continued to fall.
- In 2009, Rhode Island repealed all mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses. Since then, its prison population has declined by 12 percent and the crime rate has declined by several percentage points.
Massachusetts needs to join them. Repealing mandatory drug sentences could well be the most impactful single reform for bringing about a practical, much-needed reduction in Massachusetts incarceration numbers. Ask your state legislators to support repeal of mandatory drug sentences.
This post was updated in 2015.