The House will soon be taking up a sentencing reform bill. One issue cries out for attention – our failed drug sentencing laws. Massachusetts could save millions and improve public safety at the same time by reforming “mandatory minimum” sentencing laws for drug offenses.
Each year hundreds of drug offenders receive fixed and often lengthy mandatory minimum sentences – 950 men and women in 2008 alone. Long gone are the days when the courts could hand down sentences that fit the crime. Instead, judges are required to impose one-size-fits-all sentences. Low level, non-violent drug offenders are routinely sentenced to 10 or 15 years in prison – even longer. Those on the lowest rungs of the drug trade, including many substance abusers and addicts, receive the same lengthy sentences intended for drug kingpins, even as first-time offenders. They often serve longer sentences than violent criminals.
It costs $47,000 a year for each state prisoner and about $35,000 a year for each county prisoner. Lengthy sentences create a growing population of aging prisoners who are even more expensive to house, given their medical needs.
In December the non-partisan Crime and Justice Institute noted that over the past 10 years, the budgets for the state’s prisons and jails have grown at a faster rate than the budgets for most other state services. Indeed, the budgets for public health, higher education and local aid have all decreased.
Perhaps such skewed priorities might make sense if we were buying ourselves a safer commonwealth: fewer drug offenses, reduced drug use and fewer ex-offenders caught in the revolving door of recidivism. But after nearly 30 years on the books, there is overwhelming evidence that our drug sentencing laws are a failure – an expensive and unconscionable failure.
Between 1998 and 2008, the number of state prisoners serving mandatory drug sentences increased by over 32%. Last November, the state OxyContin and Heroin Commission warned that drug addiction was now a public health epidemic. When Columbia University analyzed the impact of substance abuse on state budgets, researchers bluntly stated their findings. In 2005 almost 22% of Massachusetts’ budget was spent on “shovel[ing] up the wreckage of substance abuse and addiction,” mainly for healthcare, the criminal justice system and schools. Sadly, treatment programs accounted for less than 2% of that amount.
A modest proposal.
In 2009 the Senate passed a sentencing reform bill that would allow drug offenders to be eligible for parole at an earlier date. The bill was supported by the Executive Office of Public Safety, the Department of Correction, the Parole Board and several county sheriffs. Those officials know a thing or two about who should – and should not – be behind bars.
Eligibility for parole is a modest proposal. It would not stem the flow of drug offenders being sent to prison for long mandatory sentences. But it would offer some discretionary relief for those prisoners who are serving overly harsh sentences and pose no threat to public safety. The Parole Board would make the final decision on a case-by-case basis.
One more thing: school zones.
When the House takes up sentencing reform, it should improve on the Senate bill by reforming the “school zone” law, a particularly egregious form of mandatory sentence. This law applies to any drug offense committed within 1,000 feet of a school – more than the length of three football fields. It applies at any time of day or day of the week. A school zone violation carries a mandatory sentence of two to 15 years, which must be served after completing any sentence for the drug offense itself.
The law was enacted even though Massachusetts already has tough penalties for drug offenses involving children. Studies on the law’s impact revealed that the vast majority of school zone cases don’t even involve children. Instead, the law creates an “urban effect” where city dwellers are punished more harshly than suburban or rural residents who commit the same offense. Not surprisingly, this translates into appalling racial disparities.
As so many other states have come to realize, we cannot sustain the skyrocketing rate of corrections costs. Our tax dollars should be spent in a way that makes communities safer, not poorer. Allowing drug offenders to be eligible for parole is a controlled yet effective way to start.
Barbara J. Dougan
Massachusetts Project Director
Families Against Mandatory Minimums