Pubdate: Sun, 21 Oct 2007
Source: Daily News Tribune (Waltham, MA)
Copyright: 2007 The Daily News Tribune
Author: David W. White Jr., Guest columnist
Note: David W. White Jr. is president of the Massachusetts  Bar 
Association and is principal in the firm of  Breakstone, White & 
Gluck PC in Boston.
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)
Bookmark: (Treatment)
Bookmark: (Youth)


Since long before Richard Nixon coined the phrase "War  on Drugs," 
our country experienced a sharp increase in  the penalties associated 
with illegal drug possession,  distribution and trafficking. In 
Massachusetts, as in  many other states, more than one dozen minimum 
mandatory sentences were added to the law books.

The demand for "truth in sentencing" was answered by a  series of 
laws enhancing or restricting parole  eligibility in 1980s and 1990s; 
but in the political  shuffle, sentencing guidelines were 
unfortunately left  on the sidelines.

Tabling these critical guidelines has resulted in  cumulative 
negative effects. Specifically, prison  populations have more than 
quadrupled since 1990, now  totaling more than 11,000, compared to 
approximately 2,500 in 1990. All of the Massachusetts prisons 
and  jail facilities are overcrowded. The costs of the  corrections 
systems is approaching $1 billion annually  - a total that excludes 
the costs to victims, the costs  of prosecutions and appeals, and the 
costs to run the  courts.

Are we getting much bang for our buck? The answer is a  resounding 
"no." Crimes of possession have not been  reduced by the threat of 
longer sentences. Without  effective parole, an increasing number of 
prisoners are  being released from medium and maximum security 
prisons to the street, unsupervised, uneducated, and 
untrained.  Recidivism rates are now more than 50 percent in 
the  three years following prisoner release.

The failure of the corrections system to reduce  recidivism is a 
guarantee that there will be a  continuing stream of victims.

The failures in the corrections system can, in large  part, be traced 
to a few misguided policies. First,  education and training programs 
do not meet the needs  of prisoners. Most inmates lack a high school 
diploma,  have substance abuse problems, and have few, if any,  job 
skills. Yet education, training, and treatment  programs have been slashed.

The prison budget for such programs is roughly three  percent of the 
entire prison budget. As a result,  General Education Development 
(GED) diploma completion  rates are down and waiting lists for the 
few existing  treatment programs continue to grow. The concept of 
rehabilitation in our state prisons has all but been  abandoned, 
which presents more opportunities for the  negative effects of idle 
prisoners to build,  heightening the threat to other prisoners and 
prison  guards alike.

Second, sentencing changes have diminished meaningful  parole. 
Mandatory minimum sentences prevent inmates  from having any parole, 
and from entering training  opportunities or re-integration programs. 
Other  sentences, with only slight differences between the  minimum 
and the maximum (for example, a sentence of 10  years to 10 years and 
one day), diminish or eliminate  any opportunity for parole. 
Mandatory minimums should  be revisited to create sentences that 
preserve parole as a means for a successful transition from prison 
back  to society.

The poster child for the need for mandatory minimum  sentencing 
reform is the school zone offense, which  mandates a two-year 
sentence for the sale of even the  smallest quantity of drugs within 
1,000 feet of a  school, or in the proximity of a church, park, or 
day  care center.

Of course, everybody agrees that selling drugs to  students or 
children must be prevented and offenders  should face appropriate 
punishment, but the vast  majority of convictions for school zone 
offenses are  unrelated to schools or the students who attend them. 
The simple fact is, in urban areas, almost all of the  city can be 
considered a school zone. The law therefore  has a disparate impact 
on urban areas and on  minorities, when compared to areas outside of 
city limits. If someone sells drugs in Lynn, he or she goes  to jail, 
while the same offense in the suburbs will  result in a light 
probationary sentence.

Now is the time to advocate for meaningful reform,  especially given 
the legislature's current appetite for  change. Senate President 
Therese Murray, House Speaker  Salvatore DiMasi, and Governor Deval 
Patrick have all  expressed interest in reforming school zone and 
other  mandatory sentences. Potential legislative action this  fall 
would be welcome by many.

However, such action will be incomplete if we fail to  restore 
meaningful programs to the prisons, including  education, treatment 
for addiction and mental illness  and job training. To ensure a more 
harmonious  transition from the cell block to society, we need to 
expand and improve our existing parole system.

Meaningful reforms will guarantee improvements to only  better 
society. These include reducing crime, restoring  families and 
communities, and cost savings to  taxpayers. The citizens of this 
commonwealth deserve  nothing less.


David W. White Jr. is president of the Massachusetts  Bar Association 
and is principal in the firm of  Breakstone, White & Gluck PC in 
Boston. He is one of  the featured speakers at a sentencing symposium 
to be  held on Oct. 23 at 10 a.m. at the Massachusetts  Statehouse.