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Mass. High Court Urges Lawmakers To Revisit Mandatory Minimum Sentences Because Of Impact On Minorities

The state’s highest court says lawmakers should reconsider mandatory minimum sentences when it comes to certain drug offenses.

In a ruling issued Friday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court was considering the case of Imran Laltaprasad, who was arrested in Somerville in 2013 and later convicted on charges of possession with intent to distribute heroin and cocaine.

Under the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws, each charge requires three and a half years in prison. However, the trial judge gave a lesser sentence of two and a half years due to the “relatively small amount of contraband” and “extreme medical condition” of the defendant. Laltaprasad was found with 10 bags of cocaine and two bags of heroin weighing a total of .81 grams, and he had lost his leg following an earlier shooting incident.

The Supreme Judicial Court remanded the the case to a lower court to be resentenced under the prescribed mandatory sentencing guidelines.

At issue in this case is how much discretion judges should have in sentencing — specifically whether judges can depart from mandatory minimum sentencing requirements. In this case, the justices said no.

“We conclude that because the Legislature has not yet enacted into law sentencing guidelines recommended by the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission, a sentencing judge currently may not impose a sentence that departs from the prescribed mandatory minimum term.”

Here, the court puts the onus on the state Legislature to reform sentencing guidelines so judges can have more discretion. The court also points out that the state Legislature hasn’t acted on sentencing guidelines recommended by the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission 20 years ago in 1996:

“It may be appropriate for the Legislature to consider anew, guided by the work of the commission, the issue of authorizing sentencing judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences in relation to certain types of drug offenses in appropriate circumstances.”

The justices also note data about drug convictions in the state, saying it raises “serious concern about the disparate impact of mandatory minimum sentences on defendants who are part of racial or ethnic minority groups.”

Following Friday’s ruling, some lawmakers said the case shows the need to move forward with reforms.

“The finding in this case reinforces the need for the Legislature to take a serious look at reforming mandatory minimum sentences and our criminal justice system as a whole ... The sentence ultimately imposed on the defendant in this case -- despite the trial court judge’s findings of mitigating circumstances to reduce the sentence — illustrates the continuing inefficacy and disparate impact of mandatory minimum sentencing,” Sen. Cynthia Creem, who has sponsored bills to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences on non-violent drug offenses, said in a statement.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who has also sponsored legislation to reform sentencing rules, said she’s hopeful the Legislature will take up the issue next year.

“From a justice perspective, from a racial justice perspective, from a tax payer perspective, the understanding that the status quo is not serving anybody well is certainly growing both among the general populous of Massachusetts and among the lawmakers,” Chang-Daiz said in a phone interview. “That is not to suggest by any stretch of the imagination that this is an easy road in the Legislature. There’s still resistance to reexamining our mandatory minimum policies, but I think it's definitely a growing movement.”

Proponents of mandatory minimum sentences say they act as a deterrent for crime. Opponents say they crowd prisons with people who need treatment, not incarceration.

Following the SJC ruling, the ACLU of Massachusetts called for a repeal of mandatory sentences for drug charges.

"Our client in this case is like many other people who are imprisoned each year on drug charges: disabled, Black, and a drug user," the ACLU’s racial justice director Rahsaan Hall said in a statement. "Mr. Laltaprasad's case illustrates the failure of the war on drugs, and the outsized sentencing power mandatory minimums gives prosecutors."

Efforts to reform sentencing laws in Massachusetts have been underway for years. Meanwhile several other states, including conservative states, have overhauled their sentencing laws — some have eliminated them while others are steering drug offenders towards treatment programs.

“I think it's really notable that we have seen, particularly in several so-called 'red states,' a real willingness to look at what mandatory minimums are costing us both in dollars and in social cost and have a reckoning and say, ‘Look who is this working for?’ It’s not working for anybody and it's enormously expensive and we have not yet reached a critical mass politically in Massachusetts of a willingness to do that,” Chang-Diaz said.

Chang-Diaz said in the past there may have been concerns about appearing soft on crime, but she sees support for sentencing reform growing. And she plans to re-file legislation on the matter next year.

Work is already underway in the state to review the criminal justice system. A committee of members from the legislative, executive and judicial branches has been working with The Council of State Governments to assess and make policy recommendations on the state’s corrections system.

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Zeninjor Enwemeka Digital Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a digital reporter, covering a range of news. She also covers tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.

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