One of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security’s key legislative initiatives this year is reform of the criminal sentencing laws. Although our bills were filed just over a month ago, hearings have already been scheduled before the legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary, one on March 16 and another on March 30. We don’t know yet which bills the Committee will hear which day – they have designated March 16 for “parole,” and March 30 for “probation,” but our bills cover both topics. Still, it is exciting, and a bit scary, to see the attention being paid to this issue.
It’s no surprise that these issues are on the front burner. State and county prisons are overcrowded, and the Commonwealth is facing unprecedented fiscal challenges – we can’t just build more prisons. Meanwhile, states across the country are reevaluating the costly and ineffective sentencing polices associated with the “War on Drugs.” And, finally, the public has lost confidence in our system of community supervision, not just because of scandal in the Office of the Commissioner of Probation, but also because in many cases we seem to be keeping the wrong kind of person in prison for too long, letting worse offenders out too soon, and sometimes not supervising the most dangerous criminal at all.
The main idea of our proposals is to make sure that repeat, violent offenders get serious time, with costly prison beds are reserved for them and community supervision when they finally get back on the street, but that non-violent offenders whose worst problem is drug addiction are punished in proportion to their crime and are able to get the training, treatment, and services they need. Our proposals strengthen and close loopholes in the so-called “habitual offender” laws, and those changes are necessary. At the same time, lengthy mandatory minimum sentences are imposed on thousands convicted of drug crimes. If these offenders use guns or involve children, they are a danger to their communities and deserve those long sentences. But we are spending far too much of your money providing costly prison beds for non-violent drug offenders who turned to crime because of addiction. I am personally familiar with the story of a defendant who was convicted twice for possessing drugs with intent to distribute – both times involved a single, $10 bag of heroin – who received a mandatory minimum term of 5 years, which is what the law requires. This was a man with a problem, not someone who threatens society so much that he needs five years in a state prison cell to keep us safe. And there are hundreds of stories like this.
It’s easy for lawmakers to “throw the book” at hardened criminals, so I am confident that something like our habitual offender proposals will pass soon. But it takes courage to say that mandatory minimum sentences are too harsh for some drug offenders and should be eliminated, or at least shortened. We need both types of changes. The Governor has shown his common sense, and his courage, by proposing laws that will readjust our sentencing priorities in a way that is both tough, and smart, on crime.