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Test Case Tackles Commonwealth's Mandatory Minimum Sentences

The future of mandatory minimum sentencing is now in the hands of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. (Swampyank/English Wikipedia)
The future of mandatory minimum sentencing is now in the hands of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. (Swampyank/English Wikipedia)
April 11, 2016

BOSTON - It is now up to the state's highest court to determine whether a judge in a drug case can impose a sentence lower than the mandatory minimum under state law.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments last week.

ACLU of Massachusetts legal director Matt Segal argues that judges can depart from mandatory minimum sentences because of a 1996 state law that created a legal safety valve.

"And in Massachusetts, this safety valve permits judges in cases involving mitigating facts to impose sentences below the mandatory minimum, and here there were mitigating facts," says Segal.

The case at issue is Commonwealth v. Laltaprasad.

Segal says the judge in that case was right in giving the defendant a lesser sentence, because he possessed only a small amount of drugs and was facing major health problems at the time of the offense.

The state argued the judge should not be allowed to depart from the mandated minimum drug sentence because the state Legislature failed to pass needed guidelines.

Segal says there are no studies that show mandatory minimum sentences deter drug abuse, but plenty of evidence to show that they lead to terrible outcomes.

"Year after year in Massachusetts, more than 70 percent of mandatory minimum sentences are applied to people of color, even though people of color make up a far lower percentage of the population and even though they possess and distribute drugs at far lower rates than 70 percent of the population," says Segal. "So, these mandatory minimum sentences have turned into tools of discrimination."

The ACLU is representing the defendant. More than 40 local organizations are supporting the reduced sentence and many filed friend-of-the-court briefs.

They include the American Friends Service Committee, Jobs Not Jails and Arise Social Justice. A decision is expected early this summer.

Mike Clifford, Public News Service - MA