…And so the “war against drugs” continues…more or less.

The question today is one of penalty. In other words, the prisoners of the drug wars. What do you do with them once you’ve got them?

On the criminal justice platter is the question of mandatory minimum prison sentences for those convicted of participating in drug crimes. We have discussed this issue a number of times. Usually, defense attorneys are against such sentences as they currently exist. Prosecutors, at least those who have media priviledge, are for them.

Now, the Supreme Judicial Court Chief , Justice Ralph D. Gants, has come out against such sentences.

Justice Gants’ view, no doubt based on many years of experience as a lawyer (including as a prosecutor) as well as on the bench, is contrary to that of Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley. Legal politics being what it is, DA Conley sped up to the same legal summit at which Justice Gants had expressed his view to blast said Justice and his view.

“It is not a new, innovative idea, but a return to the failed policies of the 1980s,” Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said of Justice’s view.

Conley had been invited to the summit, the Second Annual Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition at the University of Massachusetts Boston, to speak about justice for inmates and offenders with drug addiction and mental health problems. Instead, Conley used his speaking turn to launch a 10-minute rebuttal of Gants’s remarks, arguing that the state’s 11 district attorneys have exercised their power to seek mandatory minimum sentences in drug crimes cases

Conley invoked a dramatic drop in crime in Boston since the 1980s and early 1990s. He claimed that “Minimum mandatory sentences aren’t the only reason” for the decrease…But we really have our head in the sand if we think they’re not part of it.”

Prosecutors have expressed their opposition to the Justice Gants’ proposal in the past. It was first announced in October 2014 during an address before the Massachusetts Bar Association.   In that speech, Gants called on the Legislature to pass laws to abolish mandatory sentencing, as part of a call for broader changes in the court system.

In his keynote address, Gants had spoken about the need to reform laws that he said have led to overly long sentences that are disproportionate with the crime. The sentences, he said, punish drug couriers as if they are kingpins, and place a financial burden on the state, where prisons are beyond capacity.

“In addition, they are unfair to minority populations; they fail to address the drug epidemic; and they are a poor investment of public funds,” Gants said in a speech that brought most of the crowd to its feet. “When some district attorneys say they fear judicial leniency, they really are saying that they do not want to relinquish to judges the power to impose sentences that mandatory minimum sentences give to prosecutors. They would prefer that prosecutors decide what sentence a drug dealer receives.”

Conley, in all fairness, agreed with the thought that it is important to have a robust debate around the idea of reforming drug-sentencing laws.

 Attorney Sam’s Take On Mandatory Minimum Sentences In Drug Cases

Some of you may not realize the reality of mandatory minimum sentences and how they realistically play out in the trenches of the criminal justice system.

A mandatory minimum sentence is a sentence which a judge cannot go lower than, under any circumstances, should a defendant be convicted for a particular crime. The only way for that defendant not to serve that mandatory minimum sentence or more is to either have that particular charge dismissed or be found guilty. Generally, the only chance at getting the charge dismissed is for the prosecutor to reduce the charge so that the defense and prosecution can come to such a joint recommendation to present to the court.

In cases without a mandatory minimum, the judge can play an active role in plea negotiation. The court can come to an agreement with the defendant for the sentence even if the prosecution disagrees.

This cannot be done in the types of cases about which we are talking in this posting. The prosecutor is the “only game in town” in terms of a negotiation to resolve the case prior to trial.

Let’s discuss this further in a future posting.  Say…on Monday.

Tomorrow, we turn to the streets.


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