Last week, we began discussing the issue of mandatory minimum prison sentences in drug cases. The Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court himself has come out in favor of abolishing the statutes containing these penalties.
The District Attorney of Suffolk County, a political advocate for punishing crime in general disagreed.
While one would assume that I would tend not to be of the same opinion as DA Conley, one has to admit that both men have been around the Massachusetts criminal justice system for a long time.
So have I, although the second half of the 1980’s found me as a prosecutor in Brooklyn, New York.
It was the time of the crack, cocaine explosion. At least in Brooklyn, it hit the criminal justice system like an explosion and created havoc.
Meanwhile, in the Massachusetts 1980’s came up with the solution of mandatory minimum prison sentences in drug crimes. According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums (“FAMM”), there were no studies at the time that such laws would do anything to deter drug crimes or lessen drug addiction.
Despite DA Conley’s claims, these “one size fits all” mandatory sentences are usually based solely on the weight of the drugs in question, not what the person actually did, prior record or whether he or she is a danger to public safety. Addicts, low level offenders and kingpins are all treated the same – everyone goes to prison. For many years.
Now, over 30 years later, it seems clear that the approach has not worked. Drug crimes hold rather steady
Attorney Sam’s Take On “Feel Good” Legislation That Does Not Work
One day I will publish the manuscript of this time in relation to drug cases and how they were handled in the trenches. Suffice to say, the overloading of the courts was staggering and human error abounded.
After all, while people had targeted the “drug dealer” as evil, suddenly drugs were a part of almost every other kind of crime. Drug dealers were often pitiful addicts. There came questions of addictions and illness as opposed to clear cut evil intent.
We had to adjust.
Adjustment takes time.
Our society does not like to hear solutions that will “take time” from our political representatives. As a result, as so often is the case, a dramatic movement is fashioned by elected officials to make everyone feel like something is being done…even if that “something” is not particularly helpful.
So went the history of mandatory minimum prison sentences in drug cases. The thought, I guess, was to say to all those who might face such charges “if you are found guilty of this crime, whatever the circumstances or possibilities of mistake, you will serve many, many years behind bars with the other bad guys and nobody can help you by taking circumstances into account.”
“Well, wait, Sam. The prosecutor can, right?”
Sure. The prosecutor can lessen or dismiss the charge which has the mandatory minimum. However, that is not going to happen unless, in exchange, the defendant is going to plead guilty and accept the sentence that the prosecutor wants him or her to serve.
Thus, a defendant, guilty or innocent, faces a tough choice. Insist on your innocence and face a potential decades-long prison term or plead guilty and maybe go home today.
As you know, the prosecutor represents one of the two sides of the criminal justice aisle. The prosecutor is a hired advocate for that side of the aisle. That prosecutor will be in trouble if he/she is not tough enough. Never will there be public scrutiny for being too harsh.
“You make it sound like a game.”
As horrible as this sounds...it often is.
It is no surprise that someone who has spent most of his adult life as a prosecutor would be most comfortable with the idea that life would be a wholeloth better if the angel on the white horse…the prosecutor…could call the shots.
Unfortunately, it is a misguided viewpoint. People’s perspectives differ and they all need to be taen into account. As do the individual realities of those in the drug trade.
That is, if you want to have any progress toward fixing the problem.
There are many reasons that it was decided so long ago that we are best served with the existence of both sides of that criminal justice aisle.
“Ok, Sam, so we know your opinion on it. Assuming we are not drug dealers…what does this have to do with us?”
Quite a bit, actually.
First of all, this is your society. These are your laws. It will be your family and neighbors (maybe even you) who will one day find themselves with the sudden last name of “Defendant”.
It will also be you whowill live in the society which “welcomes” back onto the streets many of these broken individuals who have become hardened and severely limited after they were sent to serve “hard time” because of an addiction.
The second point is related to the first.
When it is you or a loved one who is facing the accusing finger of the prosecution, you want to have someone with an understanding of all this representing you.
“Uncle Sal” who helped the family out last year for that dog bite case is not likely to cut it despite the huge discount he will give.
You need an experienced criminal defense attorney. Someone seasoned.
Otherwise the dark and bumpy road you are about to go down will be much darker…and, potentially, a one way street into the end of life as you know it.
To review the article upon which this blog is based, please go to