Massachusetts has imposed mandatory minimum sentencing since the early 1990s. Currently, the law requires certain sentences for certain crimes, with no parole or work release.
Most often, it sets prison time for people convicted of drug trafficking, gun possession without a permit, and some drunk driving offenses.
Now Governor Patrick has launched a review of the system and there are also two legislative proposals to change the rules.
We have two stories on this issue today. First, WBUR's Monica Brady-Myerov profiles a prisoner in Framingham who's serving a mandatory minimum sentence for selling cocaine. Then we speak with the District Attorney in Springfield for his reaction.
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MONICA BRADY-MERYOV: Michaelene Sexton is a 55 year old grandmother of four who wears her strawberry blonde hair in a long braid. In the 1990s she was a bartender in Greenfield with a 10th grade education, three children, no husband and a growing cocaine habit.
MICHAELENE SEXTON: And I met this person who offered it to me at a very cheap price and I started including a friend or two in on it and it eventually got it really cheap or for free and eventually I started making a little money at the same time. It just snowballed. I never intended to be selling drugs.
MONICA BRADY-MERYOV: But she did — for almost 10 years. In 1999 she was arrested for possession of 100-200 grams of cocaine with intent to distribute. That amount could be packaged into as many as 9,000 $10 bags of cocaine. Her conviction fell under state mandatory minimum sentencing laws so the judge was not able to take into consideration the fact that she had never been arrested before, had no weapons and was a single mother of three.
MICHAELENE SEXTON: I never imaged that I would end up in prison for 10 year never imagined that could happen because I didn't murder anyone. I didn't rape anyone I'm not a child molester. I was a woman who had a drug problem and was doing illegal activities didn't expected to get a longer sentence than people who do violent crimes. I never expected that.
MONICA BRADY-MERYOV: But federal research shows that the average sentence for a first time, non-violent drug offender is longer than the average sentence for rape, child molestation, bank robbery or manslaughter.
Sexton is 8 years into her sentence. She started it among the state's hardest core prisoners at MCI Framingham. She says living in prison is like living in a busy airport — people coming and going all the time, loud announcements, never total darkness. And always a feeling of isolation.
MICHAELENE SEXTON: I can't even tell you how painful it's been for my family and myself. I wasn't there for the death of my son or the loss of my mother.
MONICA BRADY-MERYOV: She attended their wakes with her hands and feet shackled. Mandatory sentencing laws require the person serve all of the time in prison, no probation, no work release, no she was moved across the street to South Middlesex Correctional Center, a minimum security prison with no fences or locks on the doors. But she will not be released until she's served every day of her 10 year sentence.
MICHAELENE SEXTON: I watch people that have done carjacking home invasions violent crimes and they are out there working in the public and they are able to save money so on their release they have something to start with. We mandatory drug offenders we don't have the opportunity.
MONICA BRADY-MERYOV: She is allowed to work on the grounds of South Middlesex, in the kitchen or volunteering to tend flowers in the greenhouse.
MICHAELENE SEXTON: We have some larkspur some delphinium
MONICA BRADY-MERYOV: Michaelene Sexton says she finds peace and satisfaction in gardening.
MICHAELENE SEXTON: It feels like I can breathe a little better. It feels like I've been holding my breath for all this time and when I'm around all this nature I feel like I can breathe a little easier.
MONICA BRADY-MERYOV: Sexton is now drug free, has almost completed a liberal arts degree, but has few skills, and that worries her.
MICHAELENE SEXTON: I'm going to be leaving prison when I should be retiring and I don't have a lot of options so it's scary. I want to get on it as soon as I can and these last two years I feel should be spent getting ready. I should be working and saving money.
I MONICA BRADY-MERYOV: It costs the state $45,000 a year to keep Michaelene Sexton in prison. When she leaves, she will have less than a thousand dollars saved from earning $10 a week making lunches for inmates on work release.
For WBUR I'm Monica Brady-Myerov.
This program aired on July 30, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.